Apple and Tesla could soon be competitors in the driverless car business, but they could have ended up on the same team.
Responding to a Reuters report that Apple is developing an autonomous passenger vehicle for sale as soon as 2024, Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted Tuesday that he “reached out” to Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook during Tesla’s “darkest days” in 2017 to propose that Apple buy the electric carmaker.
“He refused to take the meeting,” Musk wrote, before twisting the knife. The price would have been “1/10 our current value.”
Tesla’s stock market value has reached a mind-blowing $640 billion. The “darkest days of the Model 3 program” is an apparent reference to an era Musk has described as “production hell,” when the Model 3 project was in serious trouble and cash was short. Musk has previously said the company was on the brink of bankruptcy at the time.
Apple has not yet returned a request for comment. Musk did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment; Tesla does not employ a public relations department.
Musk is racing to deliver driverless cars as well, though his time frame has been much more ambitious. Last year, just before issuing a new round of stock, he said Tesla would have a million driverless robotaxis on the road by the end of 2020. He later backpedaled on that claim, saying only that there would be a million Teslas capable of operating as autonomous taxis.
Waymo, an arm of Google parent Alphabet, already offers a driverless robotaxi service in Arizona, and is applying to do the same in limited areas of California. General Motor’s Cruise is planning a robotaxi service next year in San Francisco. Amazon earlier this year bought driverless car technology company Zoox. Uber recently sold its driverless car unit to a company called Aurora.
Several other companies are building systems for driverless cars and trucks, and an entire industry is rising to provide software and hardware components.
The head of the Apple advanced project unit said to be developing driverless cars is Doug Field, who ran manufacturing at Tesla during “production hell.” The manufacturing breakdown that snarled Model 3 output came after Musk tried to robotize its Fremont, Calif., factory to the point where it would resemble an “alien dreadnought.” The attempt failed.
In any event, the company started making Model 3s in a tent, and began selling enough cars to attract an ultra-enthusiastic following in the stock market, giving Musk sufficient capital to put to rest any idea that the company might go bust.
The Reuters story quoted two anonymous sources who said Apple plans to sell some form of driverless car by 2024, likely in combination with an existing carmaker, although the COVID-19 pandemic could push that date to 2025 “or beyond.” The plan is to sell a car to individual owners, rather than for robotaxi fleets, the sources told Reuters.
A third source said Apple also is working on an advanced electric vehicle battery project. Tesla has such a program in the works, as dozens of other companies, large and small.
Over the years, reports have had Apple’s interest in driverless cars waxing and waning. Apple itself has said little about its ambitions.