Why Apple is charged up about the electric car business

Electric car business might be Apple's answer for what to do with $178 billion

Is Apple really setting its sights on developing electric cars?

Although the computer and smartphone giant has yet to comment, the answer seems to be "yes."

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the Cupertino, Calif., company has created a team of employees to explore an Apple-branded electric car.

Now news has surfaced of a lawsuit filed against Apple this month by electric car battery maker A123 Systems. The company, which makes batteries for BMW, Daimler and Tata, accuses Apple of poaching its employees.

Analysts at Barclays Capital Inc. believe there are good reasons for Apple’s charge into the electric car business. Here’s why.

Lots of cash: Apple is sitting on a $178-billion hoard of cash and securities. It needs to put that money to use. Why not bet on a global move toward electric vehicles? The global car market stands at an annual $2.2 trillion. Battery electric cars – excluding the various types of hybrids – account for about $16 billion. Barclays expects that to grow to $70 billion by 2021.

The auto market “seems big enough for Apple to consider – especially given its ability to disrupt profit pools in the past by selling premium products against the odds - and assuming a seamless ecosystem and high-end brand will trump all other factors,” the Barclays analysts wrote in a report to investors this week.

A strong brand: Apple's brand will be a huge attraction for the next generation of car customers who are unimpressed with the lineups from traditional automakers such as General Motors, Ford and Toyota, the analysts said.

“It would seem this move would logically follow a watch and enhanced living room strategy so that the car environment is consistent with the Apple ecosystem,” the Barclays report said. “We note that Apple's leading brand and style may lend itself well to the luxury market – many Apple users believe the brand says something about them – not that different than the mindset of a luxury car buyer in our opinion.”

A fresh approach: One reason automakers today have trouble tackling technology problems is because they are working with old platforms.

“Most automobiles currently in production are akin to rolling legacy enterprise software environments,” Barclays said. “They will often contain a half-dozen data networking standards, most of which are auto specific dating back two decades or more... Tesla is of course the exception here, with a modern network.”

Like Tesla, Apple would start from scratch and tap its considerable software and electronics expertise to build a new auto.

Morover, Apple is likely frustrated with its attempts to get its CarPlay system into new cars, the analysts said. (CarPlay is an in-dash feature that uses Apple’s Siri voice control and iPhones to enable drivers to make calls, read and send text messages, use Apple maps and listen to music. Hyundai said it will be available in the current Sonata, but has not yet put it in the vehicle.  Apple says it will be more generally available in other brands in the future.) Apple’s efforts to get this into new model cars likely limits its confidence in the auto industry. Going it alone might be a solution.

“We would think a company like Apple could be frustrated by this structure and the various levels of control that constituencies wanted to maintain in the technological evolution toward seamless mobility and apps,” the analysts said.

One eye on Google: Apple needs to penetrate the car market, either as a major supplier or builder to foil arch-rival Google, which already has a robust self-driving car development program underway. This also is part of a strategy to make sure that Google’s Android mobile operating system and its link to Google Maps isn't the dominant system in the car over the long term, Barclays wrote.

“An Apple car could sync easily with iPhones and iPads while expanding the scope for current and new Apple services down the road,” the analysts said.

Hurdles to clear: The auto industry operates at considerably lower profit margins than Apple enjoys. Will investors be spooked by the prospect of pouring money into a project that’s likely to have a lower return on investment?

“Making cars is generally a capital intensive business,” Barclays wrote. “We believe Apple should fully explore contract manufacturing to the extent it can, though admittedly the automotive supply chain is not as ‘outsourced’ as the technology supply chain.”

Apple also will face the legal and regulatory hassles that have challenged Tesla’s efforts to sell cars directly to the public. Indeed, Tesla has patterned its showrooms after Apple’s stores. Dealers and dealer trade groups nationwide have worked to prevent Tesla from opening its own car stores.

“Apple may want to take a wait-and-see approach to how competitors solve this problem before entering the auto market,” analysts said.

The bottom line on cars: “We are initially positive on the idea, though believe that an Apple EV could be years away and doesn’t make sense until its living room strategy plays out,” the analysts said. “For the near term, we believe investors should focus on Apple Watch as a potential catalyst into the 2015 year-end holidays."

 

They also believe the iPhone 6S could top low sales expectations.

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