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Might Apple Acquire BMW?

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 28, 2016

With hundreds of billions of dollars overseas and ridiculous profits domestically it is safe to say that Apple can have its way with whatever industry, market or project it sets its mind to.  The only sad thing is that money alone can't cure cancer or bring Middle East peace.  Money can, however, help bring a new car company into being, which is precisely the prospect being debated in dueling reports out of Cupertino this week.

One report suggests that Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche was impressed during a recent visit to Silicon Valley at the progress made by Google and Apple in the work on developing their own cars:

http://tinyurl.com/zj29k4d - "Daimler CEO says Apple, Google making progress on car" - Welt am Sonntag

A subsequent report, attributed to the Wall Street Journal, noted the rumored imminent departure of so-called 'Apple Car' "lead" Steve Zadesky and speculated on the meaning and impact of that departure for Apple's car building plans - plans which have never been acknowledged by the company.

http://tinyurl.com/j7tssjj - "'Apple Car' Lead and 16-year Apple Vet, Steve Zadesky, Leaving Company"

I am inclined to attribute greater importance to the Zetsche comments than to the Zadesky departure.  It's clear that Apple can do as it pleases and with such vast resources at its disposal the only question is Apple's level of motivation.

Regarding Zadesky’s departure, though, it may be a question of how Apple takes on the automotive industry.  It’s the usual question of build, buy or partner.

With millenials showing little interest in cars, maybe cars aren't quite as exciting an opportunity as they once were - in spite of record 2015 vehicle sales in the U.S.  Skeptics repeatedly point to Apple's profit margin comfort level being misaligned with the leaner margins of the auto industry, but believers expect Apple to overcome rather than accept that state of affairs.

The two stories do raise the question as to what an Apple car will be.  What will an Apple car look like?  Who or what is it for?  Is it a shared vehicle or a service delivery platform?  Is it an aspirational sports car suitable only for one percenters?  Is it super fast or super safe or super efficient - an EV, of course.

It's a messy question, along the lines of what do you want to be when you grow up.  Steve Jobs said: "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful … that’s what matters to me."  What would make an Apple car wonderful?  Zero emissions and zero fatalities?  Nissan, Volvo and others are already well along the way toward addressing those twin value propositions.

Google has multiple points of entry into the auto industry including maps, self-driving algorithms, operating system software and applications.  Apple has distinguished itself mainly as a hardware and design company while redefining mobile device interfaces.

Apple could make a car or Apple could hire an ODM (like Magna Steyr) to make a car.  Or Apple could buy BMW.  Seriously.

BMW is not a random example of a car company, any car company, as a suitable acquisition target for Apple.  An acquisition of a car company will enable Apple to have an immediate impact, and BMW is the most appropriate acquisition target given the extraordinary alignment between BMW and iPhone ownership.

Additionally, the automotive industry globally is plagued by over-capacity or misaligned capacity.  Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is most likely disinterested in adding yet more excess capacity with all of the associated negative environmental impacts. 

Tapping an ODM such as Magna Steyr as a manufacturing partner, though a relatively rapid and reliable point of market entry, is limited by Magna Steyr’s existing capacity and commitments.  In contrast, BMW is expected to see compound annual production growth of 4.2% through 2022, based on estimates from LMC Automotive.

This growth – which puts BMW on a path to produce nearly 3M cars in 2022 – is an appealing prospect for Apple as is BMW’s philosophy of vehicle connectivity.  BMW has one of the most advanced visions of vehicle connectivity for data acquisition and integration into the car owning experience and for the purposes of enhancing vehicle contextual awareness, safety and efficiency.

(As a side note, Daimler is anticipated to see a faster compound annual growth rate of 5.2% during the same 2016-2022 time period.  But BMW has worked more closely with Apple than has Daimler, though the Apple-BMW relationship has not been without conflict.)

The question that Apple is no-doubt facing on a daily basis, though, is why. Why make a car?

Google's vision, in contrast, is clear: driverless shared transportation - made by Google or licensed to existing auto makers.  Auto makers may not be eager to license Google technology, preferring to solve the driverless challenge on their own, but licensing an Apple-oriented vision of driving remains unclear.

To create a wonderful car suggests some kind of breakthrough in design, battery storage capacity, business model/ownership, drivability or self-drivability, content delivery or consumption, or overall user experience.  Could the wild speculation be true that Faraday Future is an Apple stealth project?  Not likely.

Apple can make cars, buses or airplanes if it so chooses.  With transportation caught in a vortex of generational disruption it's just possible that the way forward is too foggy even for Apple.  It's also possible that an environmentally conscious Tim Cook perceives cars as precisely the wrong path forward to connect with an increasingly car-averse target market.

In the end, it doesn't much matter.  Even if Apple has downshifted in its plans to build a car it could still target regional markets outside the U.S. where enthusiasm for cars is still on the rise - places like China, India, and Brazil. 

Zetsche most likely has it right, Apple and Google are further along than we all think or thought.  Both organizations have siphoned off enough engineering and marketing talent to create a new industry on their own.  And Apple, at least, has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to convince consumers to line up for whatever it might have on offer - with the possible exception of smartwatches.

And, speaking of smartwatches, Tim Cook has expressed an interest in controlling cars remotely with smartwatches.  Is that motivation enough to create an Apple car?  Time will tell.  Alternatively, perhaps Apple is only interested in developing automotive related IP for licensing purposes.  If so, making an Apple car is decidedly not in the cards.

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