Today we were all pretty surprised to hear that Apple is in talks to possibly buy supercar maker McLaren. Then we were even more surprised to learn McLaren was calling bullshit on it, even though the newspaper that broke the story is standing behind their reporting. But once an idea gets jammed in your head, it’s hard to free it. So let’s think about why an Apple-McLaren partnership might actually be a good idea.
Apple has been getting tons of speculation over its extra-secretive (even for Apple) car division, but lately there have been signs that it hasn’t been going too well. Now Apple is said to be “rebooting” its plans. While it still seems highly likely that whatever they end up producing will be electric and likely have a high degree of autonomy, much of Apple’s approach may change.
Acquiring McLaren could be a the sort of thing that lets them make the right sort of changes. Here’s why:
1. Why do it yourself when someone else can?
Apple appears to have been attempting to develop or hire the skills needed to actually manufacture a car, and may have now fully realized the difficulties involved in that process.
Sure, Apple manufactures—or contracts to manufacture—plenty of things, and their Apple ///s from the early ‘80s had a metal chassis that weighed about as much as a car, but it’s still a very different ballgame.
McLaren already has manufacturing know-how, a factory, and while it’s a low-volume manufacturer, the company does know what it’s doing. Buying a company that already knows something about the actual building process would save Apple a lot of time and money.
Also, McLaren’s factory is the sort of immaculate, high-tech temple that Apple tends to fetishize.
2. McLaren has an innovative engineering history that’s not just supercars
This one’s a little more speculative and tangential, but I think there could still be something here. It involves Gordon Murray, the Technical Director of McLaren from 1987-2004, and the man who designed McLaren’s first road-legal supercar: the famous McLaren F1.
Gordon Murray was interested in more than just supercars, as he also designed the fascinating city cars, the T.25 and T.27, which were supposed to launch this year.
This is significant because I highly doubt Apple is getting into this business to make supercars: the first car it has purchased for their car-development division is a Fiat Multipla, very innovative but possibly the exact opposite of a supercar. It’s likely there’s other engineers still at McLaren that worked with Murray and have city car or non-supercar ideas as well.
Also, Murray developed an innovative production system called iStream that reduces the scale of production facilities significantly. About six years ago, we even sort of predicted this method could be used for an “Apple Car.” Here, look:
Sure, Murray’s no longer part of McLaren, but he clearly helped establish some of its modern design and engineering DNA. Perhaps there’s something still there.
Sure, Apple already builds computers and electronics by the metric boatload, but automotive electronics are their own, very specialized thing. McLaren has been a leader in this space for quite a while, supplying sensors like accelerometers, electrical parts including displays, lighting, electric motors, gyros, and software for testing, evaluation, control systems, and more.
They have a vast amount of experience providing cutting-edge hardware and software to F1 teams, NASCAR, Formula E, and IndyCar. Access to their parts bin alone would be worth it for Apple.
Really, it may help to think of Apple as not so much as being interested in McLaren’s cars, but all the stuff inside McLaren’s cars.
The Applied Technologies Group might just be the jewel in the crown here for a company like Apple, though, because of its capable work outside of things with four wheels and a motor. McLaren ATG has done everything from using data-driven technology to design a new bicycle for Specialized, to completely re-structuring the manufacturing processes at a toothpaste factory for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
4. The name
This one is a little tricky, too—it’s not like Apple doesn’t already have some of the best name recognition this side of that guy the Romans crucified back in the day. And, Apple’s past experiences with co-branding have usually turned out to be disasters: remember the Motorola ROKR with iTunes? Or those old Apple/Bose speakers? Or even the Bandai/Apple Pippin game console? Pretty much every time Apple sticks its name next to someone else’s, it’s a disaster.
But this may be different. An Apple car that’s “Powered by McLaren” or something similar may provide enough cachet in a market that Apple doesn’t play in to actually be useful.
Also, it could be a way to justify a very high price for possible early models of an Apple car, before a mass-market version is developed. The name would help eliminate much of the stigma and accusations that Apple doesn’t know anything about cars. Who’s going to argue with McLaren?
5. They have electric car technology in production already
The one thing almost everyone seems to agree on is that an Apple car will be electric. I mean, sure, there’s been noise complaints from their R&D facility about what sure seems like it would be a gasoline car, but that’s probably just engineers trying to get the headers installed on an old Valiant after hours.
Since whatever Apple does is likely to be electric, it’s fortunate that McLaren has been going down that road as well. McLaren has announced plans for hybrid and full electric cars, and they’re already making the electric motors for Formula E racecars.
McLaren’s Formula E motor is said to have the “greatest power density of any automotive electric motor in the world.” That seems like a pretty good place to start if you’re building an electric car.
6. McLaren may be one of the few companies that actually makes cars that Apple can buy
McLaren does seem to be a pretty good fit here, but it’s also possible they were simply the best one that was actually available. Apple’s got plenty of money, sure, but even if Apple could afford it, most well-known car companies are just too big for what Apple wants.
For a purchase to make sense for Apple, they’d need to find a company that was big enough to have the capabilities and potential they desire, while being small enough to not overwhelm them with the complexity and demands of a huge company. There’s really not all that many companies that fit that bill, and it’s possible McLaren is one of the few viable options.
For now, this appears to be just some weird rumor. I’d love to know how that rumor got started, and how the Financial Times was so certain of it. Maybe somebody needs to call that stroller company. They do make an awful lot of wheeled vehicles, after all.