Business media including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Apple was working on a secret research lab (not so secret anymore) possibly directed at developing a concept electric car.  According to these reports, under the code name “Project Titan” Apple has several hundred employees working at this research lab designing a concept vehicle that resembles a minivan.

Apple, of course, has declined comment to any of these publications.

According to the published WSJ report, the size of the project team and the senior executive hires are indications of seriousness, with Apple CEO Tim Cook approving the development project almost a year ago.  Once more, the report indicates that Apple executives have flown to Austria to meet with contract manufacturers.  The publication names the Magna Steyr unit of Canadian auto parts supplier Magna International as one potential party involved.

The report accurately notes that manufacturing an automobile is enormously expensive with a single plant costing upwards of well over $1 billion. Thus, it should be of little surprise that Apple might be investigating existing contract manufacturing options.

Auto supply chain teams know all too well that sourcing production in any particular country and transporting autos among global regions can be an expensive proposition without volume and market scale. It’s clearly not the same as shipping iPhones and iPads or for that fact, ramping-up new product and supply chain labor resources to coincide with a product development lifecycle. Once more, intellectual property (IP) protection becomes a larger consideration because of the nature of the multiple components and new technologies that may be involved. For electric powered vehicles, the design and production cost of the batteries is the single most important material and product margin component.

Another parallel that these reports bring forward is that if Apple becomes serious in pursuing this foray into electric cars, it will likely be a competitor to Tesla Motors, who has been pursuing a vertical integration strategy including the design and production of its own electric storage batteries for automotive and solar energy storage use. Tesla elected to invest in a former Toyota auto factory located in Fremont California.

Certainly, there will be continued speculation as to what Apple ultimately decides to do.  However, in the light of our previous Supply Chain Matters challenge to Apple to invest more in U.S. or North America based production, Project Titan could provide the opportunity to consider such an investment commitment, either contract manufacturing or owned manufacturing investment.  North America automotive production plants and their associated supply chains have proven world class competitiveness and indeed are exporting vehicles to global markets.

However, in light of our previous commentary noting excess auto production capacity across China, Apple may elect its familiar new product introduction and contract manufacturing model.

Bob Ferrari