A new clue has emerged supporting speculation that Apple is secretly building an electric car. The tech giant recently hired Doug Betts, an executive from Fiat Chrysler who’s spent nearly 30 years in the auto industry and has expertise in manufacturing.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the hiring of Betts yesterday:
Doug Betts, who led global quality at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV until last year, is now working for the Cupertino, Calif.-based electronics giant but declined to comment on the position when reached Monday. Mr. Betts’ LinkedIn profile says he joined Apple in July and describes his title as “Operations-Apple Inc.” with a location in the San Francisco Bay Area but no further specifics.
Apple declined to comment on the new hire. It’s not immediately clear whether he is part of the company’s car initiative or if he will work on an existing product line.
Along with Mr. Betts, whose expertise points to a desire to know how to build a car, Apple recently recruited one of the leading autonomous-vehicle researchers in Europe and is building a team to work on those systems.
Prior to his seven years spent at Chrysler, Betts spent more than a decade leading vehicle manufacturing divisions at Toyota and Nissan, and his LinkedIn page references his “core knowledge of lean manufacturing.” While his Apple “operations” title doesn't say much about his actual role, Betts' experience suggests the company is interested in car production.
Earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook avoided questions about a possible partnership with electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors. Some believe Apple should buy Tesla outright. But Cook has revealed little about Apple's automotive plans, saying that the company is squarely focused on CarPlay, its in-car infotainment system that integrates iPhone features like messaging, music and maps into a vehicle’s dashboard.
“I'd love Tesla to pick up CarPlay," Cook said, when a shareholder pressed him on whether or not Apple would buy Tesla at a company meeting earlier this year. "We now have every major auto brand committing to use CarPlay. [...] Was that a good way to avoid the question?”
While Cook is staying quiet, Betts’ hire signals that Apple could be taking on a more manufacturing-heavy role. This is underscored by a number of other recent Apple hires with experience in the battery business and hardware engineering.
Earlier this year, sources told Bloomberg that Apple was looking to start production of an electric vehicle as soon as 2020. The initial design, under project code name “Titan,” is similar to a minivan, one source told The Wall Street Journal. Apple has reportedly hired hundreds of people to work on the electric-vehicle program.
The move could throw Apple in the middle of a race between Tesla and General Motors, which are both planning to build a long-range electric car at a competitive $35,000 price point.
Apple’s advantage could lie in its mastery of making sleek, user-friendly consumer electronics. But are those skills transferable to building a complex moving machine? And even if they are, is it a wise business move?
Vehicle manufacturing is capital-intensive. Tesla has struggled with the cost realities of mass-producing a car. Plus, while overall auto sales have been strong in the last couple of years, there are concerns about future growth given that millennials are foregoing car ownership -- and driving altogether.
Enter the autonomous vehicle. Rather than build a car from the ground up, Apple could be looking to control cars from the inside out.
Several big Silicon Valley firms have already moved into autonomous vehicles development. Google’s self-driving cars are on the roads in several states, Musk has said Tesla cars will be fully autonomous in three years, and Uber has opened a test facility in Pittsburgh to develop an autonomous taxi fleet.
Apple seems eager to get in the game. Earlier this year, it hired Paul Furgale, former deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who previously led a European Commission project to develop self-parking vehicle technology.
Today’s major tech companies clearly see the transportation industry as a huge opportunity. At this early stage, however, it's less clear which brand will dominate.
Apple and Tesla are already locked in a battle for the best talent -- will they be locked into a battle to build an autonomous electric car?