What has Tesla to do with Apple?

-February 27, 2014

As reported over a week ago by the San Francisco Chronicle, Tesla CEO Elon Musk met with Adrian Perica, the mergers and acquisition head at Apple, sometime in the Spring of 2013. As if Tesla stock needed any more help, the price shot up almost 33% after the story broke. In the last 12 months, Tesla’s share price has risen over 700% to over $250. I think there could be some logical way to connect Apple and Tesla, but first let me recap the past couple of weeks.

While early speculation swirled around Apple acquiring Tesla, Forbes reported this past weekend that acquisition wasn’t ever on the table. Buzz has since shifted to Tesla’s future “Gigafactory”, a possible North American facility to produce the huge quantities of Lithium Ion batteries Tesla plans to need for its cars, which was mentioned many times in Tesla’s most recent earnings call, as reported in Seeking Alpha’s transcript. Musk was questioned about partners in the Gigafactory, including Panasonic, which is already a key Tesla battery partner.

Responding to a question from analyst Andrea James of Dougherty & Company, Musk was quoted saying “Well, we actually expect that there'd be more than one partner in the factory. I mean, obviously, Panasonic is currently our primary partner on cell production, and so the default assumption will be that Panasonic would continue to partner with us in the Gigafactory. But there are also likely to be other suppliers in the factory…”. Of course, that leaves the door open for Apple involvement in the Gigafactory.

As over-hyped as the Tesla / Apple meeting might be, there seems to be no limit to speculation. This week, Chris Ciaccia said on thestreet.com that “The electric utility sector is a $400 billion market in the U.S. and $2 trillion globally. Tesla could successfully compete in this space, as its estimated 7.2 million fleet of cars (by 2028) will have enough stored energy capacity to exceed the daily electricity consumption of Mexico, coming in at more than 443 gigawatts.” This statement was supposed to support a forecast of Tesla stock price getting as high as $320.

So we have everything from Apple buying Tesla as a way to put its huge cash reserves to work, to Tesla becoming a player in global electric utilities! Does any of this make sense? My two cents says that it might make sense for Apple to invest heavily in a battery factory if that achieved economies of scale beyond what can be reached today. It could make more sense if Apple expects to launch more power hungry devices of some sort, but for now I won’t speculate what those might be. Just looking at the numbers, the Christian Science Monitor reported this week that they estimate Tesla’s consumption of Li-ion cells to be about half of Apple’s 2013 consumption. Using CSM’s figures and converting to a constant capacity basis, assuming a single cell in Tesla’s ~8,000-cell pack can store 12Wh, Apple used about 245 million equivalent cells to Tesla’s 192 million cells. (Apple’s unit figures are lower because the iPad battery cells are much larger.)

If Tesla were planning for 100,000 car sales a year, or about four times their current rate, and if Apple were to, say, double their sales over the same period, then we are talking about 1.3 billion equivalent cells, far exceeding today’s global production. For their part, Tesla is promoting the Gigafactory as raising the bar in battery production, including powering the factory from new renewable energy plants (solar, wind) and integrating battery recycling with state of the art low-emission manufacturing. Tesla’s materials indicate the factory could be located in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas, and employ 6,500 people. As a benchmark, Apple has around 80,000 US employees.

So, do I think Apple could, should, or will by Tesla? No. Unless they think Google might beat them to it. Google has been on a buying binge lately. With Google’s work in autonomous vehicles, having a stake in an electric vehicle company could make some sense. On the other hand, if I’m going to speculate on Silicon Valley buyers or partners for Tesla, I’d not leave out Amazon. Already expressing an interest in autonomous delivery vehicles, realistically I think autonomous electric surface vehicles are a lot closer than flying drone door to door service. While Amazon doesn’t have the cash of the likes of Google or Apple, they still have more than a few billion dollars available. I’d love to hear what you think.

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