One of the great things about billionaire entrepreneurs is that they don’t really have to guard their tongues the way corporate chiefs do. So when electric car and space rocket kingpin Elon Musk was asked about the threat his firm Tesla faces from the rumoured and much-anticipated Apple car, he didn’t pull his punches.
‘Did you ever take a look at the Apple Watch?’ Musk scoffed in an interview with German paper Handelsblatt. ‘No seriously, it’s good that Apple is moving and investing in this direction. But cars are very complex compared to phones or smartwatches. You can’t just go to a supplier like Foxconn and say: build me a car.’
Ouch. Musk didn’t stop there either. There’s a good reason Apple might be interested in building a smart car to rival Tesla, after all. It was ‘the next logical thing to finally offer a significant innovation… a new pencil or bigger iPad alone were not relevant enough.’ Somebody’s not getting a complementary iPhone 6S from Apple this Christmas then.
As ways of starting a corporate spat go, this one’s up there with Pearl Harbor. Of course, Musk does have history with Apple. The Cupertino giant has been preparing the way for an iCar for some time, hiring senior ex-Chrysler executive Doug Betts and buying GPS firm Coherent Navigation and location services business Mapsense this year.
More to the point, it’s hired a whole bunch of former Tesla engineers, though Musk has said he’s taken more from Apple than they have from him. Besides, he added, Apple was hardly getting his best people. ‘We always jokingly called Apple the ‘Tesla Graveyard’,’ he said. ‘If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple.’
For all Musk’s mockery, Apple can of course enter the smart car market in a big way if it wants to. It has the world’s most valuable brand and is sitting on a $200bn (£132bn) pile of cash and marketable securities, with ‘only’ about $50bn in debt. If it needed help with the complexity of building a car, it could just about buy any of the world’s top car companies outright (there’s a sale of VW shares on at the moment apparently).
In any case, it’s curious that Musk has whacked a potential competitor (or indeed potential customer for those next generation batteries he’s always going on about) with such a sucker punch. It’s hard to see how creating bad blood between them could benefit him, which implies the bad blood was already there and probably worse than we thought.
Then again, perhaps he’s just scared. Tesla owns the space where tech-heads meet petrol-heads right now, but with Apple’s intention to make the ‘ultimate mobile device’ on wheels, Google’s driverless cars on the horizon and the big auto firms pushing into electric vehicles, that space is going to get a lot more crowded.
Whatever happens, Musk might take some comfort in the knowledge that Apple still has a way to go in its battery technology if it wants to keep up with Tesla. Frantically searching for an iCar 5 charging point to restore your rapidly depleting power supply when you can only seem to find ones for an iCar 6 is nobody’s idea of a good time.