Apple Looking to Bolster Car Project

Apple Looking to Bolster Car Project

Apple held talks with Britain’s McLaren Technology, Electric vehicle maker Lit Motors

Apple Inc., which is working to build an electric car, has held talks about investing in British sports-car maker McLaren Technology Group, according to a person familiar with the matter, but McLaren denies any talks are ongoing.

The person familiar with the matter said the discussions began “several months ago” but wouldn’t discuss whether they are ongoing.

For its part, McLaren said in a statement, “McLaren is not in discussion with Apple in respect of any potential investment.”

The person familiar with the matter also said Apple had held talks with Lit Motors Corp., a closely held San Francisco maker of two-wheeled electric vehicles. Lit declined to comment.

Together, the reports suggest that Apple, which recently laid off several dozen employees who had been working on its car project, may be refocusing its efforts and bolster its automotive-engineering expertise.

“What McLaren has right now is basically a big research center—it’s an R&D center for automobiles. You’re talking different manufacturing techniques, different material techniques,” said Neil Cybart, an analyst for Above Avalon, which follows Apple. “It’s not an insult to say that Apple does not have expertise in this—it is just not the equivalent of going from a Mac to an iPod to an iPhone, where they did not look outside for help, they need a lot of people who know cars, who know car manufacturing.”

The Financial Times earlier reported that Apple was in talks about investing in or acquiring McLaren. The New York Times earlier reported the talks with Lit.

Apple has been restructuring some elements of its secretive car effort, code-named Project Titan, since placing it under the management of veteran Apple executive Bob Mansfield in July. Apple already has several hundred employees working on the effort, but Mr. Mansfield has closed some elements of the project, prompting the recent layoffs.

Initial Project Titan designs resembled a minivan, The Wall Street Journal reported last year, but a company like McLaren would open the door to a new world of materials expertise.

“McLaren is well-known as a manufacturer of high-performance sports and racing cars, but its true expertise is in engineering lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum, both of which are key building blocks to designing an innovative lightweight vehicle,” Michael Harley, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in an emailed statement.

McLaren’s 570S sports car has an ultralight, carbon-fiber chassis.ENLARGE
McLaren’s 570S sports car has an ultralight, carbon-fiber chassis. PHOTO: MICHAEL NAGLE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

It wouldn’t be unusual for a company such as Apple to look to a specialty auto maker for help jump-starting its car-making efforts. Tesla Motors Inc., for example, worked with Group Lotus PLC in its early days, including using the auto maker as a contract manufacturer to build the Roadster.

The McLaren F1 is a favorite of Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller.

McLaren Automotive is a small-scale manufacturer, which sold fewer than 2,000 cars in 2015. Chief Executive Mike Flewitt told Automotive News in May that the company plans to invest nearly $1.5 billion over the next six years in research and development of 15 new products. Mr. Flewitt told the publication that McLaren hopes to sell 5,000 cars annually by 2022.

“We need to invest a lot of money to be able to produce cars that are competitive against some pretty high-powered competition,” Mr. Flewitt said.

The automotive unit has more than 50 dealerships around the world and employs more than 1,000 people, according to its website. The company sells cars that range in price from less than $200,000 to more than $1 million, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Lit Motors represents the other end of the vehicle spectrum. The San Francisco startup is working to build a $24,000 electric motorcycle that stands up on its own. The system uses gyroscopes to keep the two-wheel vehicle standing upright, even if it is involved in a collision, the company says on its website. That kind of technology could prove useful if Apple builds a self-driving vehicle targeted at dense urban environments.

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