It’s understandable if you missed the headlines that Apple may buy Tesla. That piece of speculative news, like most news about Tesla, has been overshadowed by the PR storm that surrounds the CEO’s behavior rather than based on the technology behind the product.
Here’s some background information for those who missed it. Simultaneously with the CEO’s investigation for violation SEC law 10b-5, rumors began to circulate that Apple may buy Tesla. Some of these rumors were started by Ross Gerber, a Tesla investor, while others sourced the VC firm Loup Ventures, and the gossip is still being echoed a month later. Essentially, the prediction is that if Tesla fails to become profitable, “Apple gains the upper hand and becomes the most likely investor or buyer.”
From a technical standpoint, the theory of an Apple acquisition is nearly impossible. The authors oversimplify (or don’t even address) where Apple is in the development stack, where autonomous vehicles (AV) are in the maturation cycle, and the ongoing failure points in AV technology that Tesla is not able to solve.
I understand there are a lot of Elon fans rooting for him, and perhaps some satisfied Tesla owners who will read this, but stock investors are in a different class. They can’t afford to follow a fad because returns are at stake. With that said, here are three blatant reasons as to why Apple won’t touch Tesla, and why I won’t either. (There is information on shorting Tesla below).
Any information or analysis contained herein and published or referenced elsewhere should be appropriately credited to Beth Kindig of beth.technology.
1. Apple Makes The World’s Best Software– Not Vehicles
Apple will not buy Tesla for the very fact that Apple doesn’t need to manufacture a car in order to capture the autonomous vehicle (AV) market. Apple is a computer and software company and AVs will require powerful computing systems. The cars released today with connectivity features have the computing power of 20 personal computers and feature over 100 million lines of programming code. Next decade’s semi-autonomous cars will have 300 million lines of code, and the distant future of fully autonomous will have 1 billion lines of code. Apple will not limit itself to the 200,000 cars that Tesla sells annually, (or even 320,000 if the current quarter is to be sustained), while at the time assuming the overhead, cyclical sales and incumbent competition of an auto manufacturing when it can capture a piece of the 82 million vehicles sold globally through the core business of supplying software. Keep in mind, Tesla is one among many who have achieved Level 2 autonomy with no indication they can safely release beyond Level 2. This makes the small amount of production Tesla actually does even less impressive from an acquisition standpoint (more on this below).
2. Apple Vs. Google: Nothing New Here Folks
The cars that Apple and Google have on the market are used to test the operating system and nothing more. These vehicles are not necessarily trying to compete with GM, Ford, Volkswagen or Audi. That’s why Apple and Google are seeking partnerships with them — they’re not competing with them. For instance, Google has run tests with Lexus/Toyota, and Jaguar Land Rover, and Apple has partnered with Volkswagon. Even still, we are at least a decadeaway from having full autonomous vehicles on the road due to technical mishaps, security vulnerabilities and government regulations. Of these, security will be the biggest hurdle to overcome as you can’t test for every possible scenario. This is because the electrical components in a car (known as the electronic control units, or ECUs) are connected via an internal network. The peripheral ECU introduces vulnerabilities such as the vehicle’s infotainment center, which means WiFi or Bluetooth can grant access to core systems such as the brakes and transmission.
AVs closest comparable for security today is the smartphone, with roving mobile sensors and signals, and iOS is challenging to hack. Can GM and other Detroit manufacturers duplicate the level of secure, computing power which Apple has perfected over the last 40 years with a closed ecosystem and the last 10 years with roving mobile signals? It’s not likely Detroit will compete with Cupertino on the machine learning required for 300 million lines of code or more, combined with full-system security, and it’ll take only one car hack before this is realized. (GM’s On Star was hacked in 2015).
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This is true in the reverse, as well. Cupertino and Mountain View don’t have the talent recruits or experience that Detroit and Munich have in car manufacturing. Tesla most certainly doesn’t as the CEO is a mobile payments entrepreneur from Paypal (yes, he led a team that launched rockets — but there are no competitors here — except NASA which only spends money — therefore this is irrelevant for what Tesla faces).
3. Baby Steps: Connected Car, then Semi-Autonomous, then Fully-Autonomous
As Tim Cook said, “[Autonomous Systems] are probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.” There are six levels to autonomous vehicles as published by SAE International. The cars released today are primarily “connected cars” featuring driver assistance (level 1) or partial automation (level 2). Tesla’s Autopilot is a Level 2 system.
What will it take to get to a Level 3? Level 3, also known as conditional automation, is hands-off and eyes-off, but still requires a human. The first to market (and only vehicle to reach the public market as of yet) is the Audi A8 featuring Traffic Jam Pilot which continues to see delays in the United States. This is why it may be at least a decade before we see level 4, high automation, or level 5, full automation. (This is despite Elon Musk tweeting that Tesla will release full automation by 2019 — but at this point, it’s safe to say we should not put your money behind these tweets).
Gartner, one of the most trusted sources for predicting technology development cycles, has placed autonomous vehicles at more than 10 years out on their most recent hype cycle graph. This hype cycle graph predicts the maturation phases for new technologies and is hauntingly accurate in predicting the ebb and flow of tech and startup fads. Remember the wearables crash? Yes, Apple Watch survived but many did not — including Google Glass despite its backing. How about Virtual Reality — especially fan favorite Oculus? As you can see in the chart below, we have just exited the peak of inflated expectations and are on the way towards the trough of disillusionment. Short sellers of Tesla this year and last year may have been basing their calls on the CEO’s behavior but we are now about to enter major technology road blocks and consolidation that unbiased analysts predict will put even the highest performing AV companies to the test — with many low performing AV companies will not survive (see where Tesla is rated below). The current shorts are not wrong, they are simply too early in the maturation process for AVs and have had a bumpy ride because of this.
4. Would you Bet On a Horse in Nineteenth Place?
In a recent report released in Q1 2018 by Navigant Research, automated driving systems were rated on 10 criteria: go-to market strategy, partners, production strategy, technology, sales, marketing and distribution, product capability, product quality and reliability, product portfolio, and staying power. Of the nineteen companies that Navigant objectively analyzes, Tesla came in last place at number nineteen.
There is a “cost and complexity” once you take a “human driver out of the control loop,” as Navigant states, and it is my belief that the partnerships which are forming between software companies and auto manufacturers will continue to outrank Tesla in product capability, reliability and security (something Navigant did not report on) — not to mention the basics of production cycles and manufacturing vehicles at scale.
Here are the top 10 from the Navigant leaderboard:
Top 10 Vendors:
- Volkswagen Group
- Renault-Nissan Alliance
Apple has many opportunities to enter the connected car and semi-autonomous vehicle market, and the best card to play will be the through the OS in the level 1–2 category similar to Google’s recent announcement that the Android OS and Google Assistant will be featured across the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Taking these baby steps now is a much smarter move for Apple than acquiring a horse that is in nineteenth place with the race heating up to reliably and safely reach Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy. In this regard, there is nothing to here to acquire.
Although there is no doubt that Waymo is ahead of Apple (and everyone, really) in the race towards automation, if Gartner and many other unbiased sources are correct, Apple has time to develop a driving system in-house (or perhaps acquire a machine learning automation startup) as we are at least 10 years from full automation.
Beth.Technology Prediction: Telsa shorts were right but their timing was off. We are in a Level 2 AV bubble, and it will burst as Level 3 and Level 4 experiences growing pains (lots of cash has poured in with too high of expectations on when AV will start to turn a profit). Tesla, a luxury electric car company, will struggle greatly in the competitive hurricane for reliable and safe automation. Therefore, I’m considering a short on Tesla in 2019 or 2020, which I plan to time with the AV bubble bursting. p.s. I’m writing on the Level 3 bubble next. Be sure to sign up for my free newsletter on tech stocks for more information.