Why it makes sense for Apple to buy supercar maker McLaren

Analysis: It's about more than building a car

Apple made headlines today when rumors circulated the tech giant was in talks to acquire supercar maker McLaren.

A Financial Times report claims Apple and McLaren were in discussions for "several months" about a full takeover or strategic investment, though McLaren quickly issued a denial.

"There's no takeover, no strategic investment," a McLaren spokesperson told Business Insider. "It's completely untrue."

Although McLaren nipped Apple acquisition rumors in the bud, it would actually make sense for Apple to partner with the car maker to move its own automotive ambitions forward. Here's why.

Rebooting the Apple Car

It's no secret Apple has been working on a car, despite some languishing efforts. Earlier this year, failed talks with BMW and Daimler resulted in the layoff of dozens of Apple employees, and there's been little official word Apple is developing a vehicle, though the signs are certainly there.

The company has already dabbled in the automotive sector by creating its Apple CarPlay in-dash interface, which is now integrated in numerous new cars.

Apple s mysterious van

Apple's unmarked van

We've also twice seen a mysterious van seemingly associated with Apple and fitted with an array of sensors typically found on self-driving autos. Though it appears the vans may be part of an Apple Maps initiative, it's still unconfirmed just what the vehicles are up to, including whether they have anything to do with testing autonomous driving tech.

Add to that a spate of recent rumors suggesting Apple will soon reboot its automotive efforts, and it's looking like Apple wants to make a move on cars before others, like Google, get too far ahead.

Where it gets tricky is what exactly Apple wants to do with a car

Where it gets tricky is what exactly Apple wants to do with a car. While the earliest rumors suggested the tech titan would make its own car from the tires up, a recent New York Times report says Apple has scrapped building a vehicle wholesale, and will instead focus its efforts on developing self-driving tech it can license to other companies.

Driving buddies

So, where does McLaren fit in?

If you're unfamiliar with the British motor company, it's historically concentrated on producing race cars. In 1992, McLaren Cars (now McLaren Automotive), a subsidiary of McLaren Racing, released its first road-legal supercar, the McLaren F1. The car set the record for the world's fastest production car, a record it held for a staggering 13 years. McLaren Automotive wouldn't release another roadcar until 2011 with the launch of the MP4-12C.

Today, McLaren is still a low-volume car manufacturer that specializes in supercars. Its cheapest vehicle, the 570S, costs $187,300 (£143,250, AU$350,000).

McLaren

Credit: McLaren

It wouldn't make sense for Apple to purchase McLaren to bring a lower cost, mass produced car to the road, namely because that's not where its expertise lies.

McLaren does, however, happen to be an impressive technology company. McLaren Technology Group, which owns 41% of McLaren Automotive, is responsible for spearheading all of the company's tech efforts.

If Apple were to acquire McLaren, it would gain access to the company's carbon fibre production methods as well as knowledge about how to build hybrid powertrains. McLaren's current flagship supercar, the $1.15 million (£866,000, about AU$2 million) P1, sports a hybrid powertrain that makes over 900 horsepower.

McLaren P1

Credit: McLaren

An acquisition would also give Apple access to McLaren's Applied Technologies division, which specializes in data analytics and builds equipment for everything from solar farms to race car electronics. But even more importantly, owning McLaren would mean Apple owns the car maker's patent portfolio, knowledge Apple could apply to any car it builds.

Apple could own McLaren and its technology for half of what it paid for Beats

This wouldn't be the first time two companies developed new driving tech together, either. Tesla's first car, the Roadster, was made in collaboration with Lotus, a sports car maker. It was only with the knowledge and production capabilities of Lotus that Tesla was able to create its first model.

A drop in the bucket

The Financial Times claims McLaren Automotive is worth about £1bn-£1.5bn (about $1.3b–1.95b), a drop in the bucket for Apple. The technology powerhouse currently has around $200 billion in the bank.

If the publication's estimates are correct, Apple could own McLaren and its technology for half of what it paid for Beats.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Tesla CEO Elon Musk

It'd also likely be cheaper than another car maker Apple was previously rumored to be interested in. Reports from 2014 indicated Apple had its eye on Tesla, and CEO Elon Musk confirmed that he had met with Apple, though he didn't disclose details of the meeting. However, Musk did say Apple making cars would be "a great idea."

Apple was also rumored to be working with Fiat Chrysler, a company that has been struggling lately, as reported by Motor Trend. Apple even hired Fiat's previous head of operations and quality in July 2015. In March, Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne said the company was interested in making a car for Apple, citing the technology company's lack of experience with building automobiles.

Fiat 500L

The Fiat 500L

It's Apple's lack of car expertise where a seasoned partner would be invaluable. Even if Apple doesn't make a car of its own, having access to automotive technology and patents to build whatever it's working on would save it time and resources as competitors get further ahead in the space. Apple could build products more quickly, incorporating its own tech and design acumen with whatever a partner, like McLaren, brought to the table.

And while talks with McLaren are dead (or, rather, never happened), rumors of Apple's interest in autos won't die anytime soon.

Soon after the Financial Times article broke, the New York Times came out with a report that Apple is in talks with startup Lit Motors, a company that specializes in self-balancing motorcycles. Apple allegedly hired several previous Lit Motors engineers prior to the Times' report, and an acquisition or partnership could give the company insight into building small electric vehicles for use in cities.

All signs point to Apple getting into the car space, and the questions now aren't just when, but how.

Top photo credit: McLaren