Nissan’s Talks with Apple Ended as Soon as They Began

Nissan GT R Credit: Clari Massimiliano / Shutterstock
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We’ve known for years that Apple has had ambitions to build its own self-driving electric car, but things have gotten much more interesting in recent months as news appears of the various automotive companies that Apple could be courting to find a partner who can actually help to produce the Apple Car at scale.

Although it’s probably not a huge surprise that Apple has been in talks with various automakers — rumours about various discussions have been circulating for years, but until recently, it was hard to say exactly what the purpose of those talks were.

For instance, a few years ago, Apple was considering giving up on the idea of building a complete vehicle, with the belief that it would instead build the self-driving car technology and then partner with companies like BMW and Mercedes to incorporate it into their vehicles.

We may never know whether Apple ever seriously intended to go in that direction, but over the past couple of years, it’s already become apparent that Project Titan’s endgame was in fact to produce an actual “Apple Car” that would bear the Cupertino company’s branding and design ethos both inside and out.

So, when reports surfaced in early January that Apple was in talks with Hyundai about a manufacturing partnership, it wasn’t really all that surprising. In fact, the bigger surprise was that Hyundai was so quick to talk about it — although it was also evident that the South Korean automaker spoke out of turn, and likely incurred Apple’s wrath as a result.

Nonetheless, the talks between the two companies broke down over fears that Hyundai would be assimilated into the Apple collective, but as expected, Hyundai wasn’t the only company Apple was talking to — merely the only one that couldn’t keep a secret.

Big in Japan?

Around the same time that Apple and Hyundai parted ways, another report appeared revealing that Apple was in talks with as many as six Japanese automakers, including Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Mazda, among others.

This resulted in a fair bit of speculation among analysts that Nissan could be the next preferred choice on Apple’s list, especially after Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida implied a willingness to work with Apple to produce the Apple Car.

Nissan was also seen as a likely potential partner due to the common EV platform that it had already developed with France’s Renault SA, along with the fact that it had excess North American production capacity available.

While all of this led to a belief that Apple and Nissan were actively in talks, and that Uchida was simply being far more discrete than his Korean counterparts, it now appears that those talks may have ended before they even really began.

According to The Financial Times, Apple did indeed approach Nissan “in recent months,” but the talks apparently never gained much traction at all, with Nissan sharing some of the same concerns about branding that some executives within Hyundai had expressed.

The contact was reportedly brief and never even advanced to senior management levels, with one source noting that they faltered quickly after Apple asked for Nissan to make cars under the Apple brand, leaving Nissan with the same fears that it would be downgraded to little more than a hardware supplier.

In fact, it’s beginning to sound like this could be Apple’s biggest challenge in finding a manufacturing partner, since almost all automakers are extremely proud and conscious of their branding and reputations. There’s a common fear that anybody who partners with Apple will become “the Foxconn of the auto industry.”

We have our own customer satisfaction, which comes by car. No way we are going to change the way we make cars. The way we design, the way we develop, and the way we manufacture is going to be as an automotive manufacturer, as Nissan.

Ashwani Gupta, Chief Operating Officer, Nissan

While confirming to The Financial Times that his company is not in talks with Apple, Nissan’s Chief Operating Officer, Ashwani Gupta, also echoed the comments made by CEO Makoto Uchida earlier this month by saying that Nissan is open to exploring partnerships with tech companies, but it intends to do so under its own brand — “to adapt their services to our product, not vice versa.”

Although this would seem to suggest that Nissan is out of the game, the report says nothing about Apple’s talks with other automakers, and it’s also worth noting that the alliance with Renault SA to develop and EV platform also happens to include Mitsubishi Motors, which is one of the other five Japanese companies Apple is said to be in talks with, and could also be a strong contender — assuming, of course, that it doesn’t share the same branding concerns as Nissan and Hyundai.

Hyundai Could Still Be a Contender

It’s also still not clear if Hyundai is totally out of the picture, as The Financial Times has also suggested that despite the South Korean automaker’s hand-wringing, it was Apple that walked away from the table, ending the talks between the two companies.

While the report doesn’t cite any sources with specific inside knowledge to back this up, a number of analysts have weighed in with the idea that it could have been a strategic move on Apple’s part to try and get the upper hand in negotiations, likely prompted at least partially by Hyundai’s breach of confidentiality.

Apple must have been really annoyed by the leak of information in the early stages. [If talks were to resume], Hyundai will probably be at a disadvantage as it lost some international credibility.

Lee Hang-koo, Korea Automotive Technology Institute

Several analysts maintain that talks between Apple and Hyundai could resume at some point, and in fact well-known Apple watcher Ming-Chi Kuo has suggested that in the very least, Apple is looking to use Hyundai’s E-GMP electric vehicle platform as the foundation for the Apple Car, regardless of who ultimately manufacturers the vehicle.

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