The Apple Car could have been built by Mercedes or McLaren — I would have loved to see that

Mercedes VISION AVTR concept
(Image credit: Mercedes)

The Apple Car was a $10 billion, decade-long project that never came to fruition — with reports of its cancellation breaking just a few short weeks ago. Now a new in-depth report from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg documents some of the things Apple did to try and make its car a reality — including trying to forge partnerships with companies like Mercedes, Tesla and McLaren.  

Apple’s history with Tesla is well known at this point. For years there have been rumors that Apple was interested in acquiring Tesla for itself, with talks falling apart in early stages. One persistent rumor, which Tesla and Apple both denied, is that talks fell apart because Elon Musk wanted to become Apple CEO — which obviously wasn’t an option.

However, Gurman claims that Apple executives still met with Tesla after talks went south, to discuss a different kind of collaboration. One such option involved Apple buying batteries from Tesla, and Elon Musk reportedly tried to restart buyout negotiations when Tesla was struggling to build the Model 3 — with Cook apparently refusing to meet.

Apple Car + Mercedes

Mercedes VISION EQXX concept

(Image credit: Mercedes)

The potential partnership with Mercedes is the most interesting to me. Apparently both companies had come to an arrangement that involved Mercedes building the Apple Car. However, Mercedes also had plans to sell its own cars powered by Apple’s self-driving platform and software interface. Considering how both companies are luxury brands, and some of the biggest players in their market, it could have been the perfect match.

Apparently Apple was so confident with the early work that they believed they could build the car by themselves. Clearly, going it alone didn't work out so well.

Unfortunately, Apple executives are said to have pulled out. Apparently they were so confident with the early work that they believed Apple could build the car by itself. That’s something we also heard a few years later, in the aftermath of reports Apple had pulled out of talks with the likes of Kia and parent company Hyundai. Clearly, going it alone didn’t work out so well.

Gurman claims Apple also met with Ford, to co-develop an Apple Lincoln, but that didn’t progress further than an initial meeting. Other discussions throughout the years included BMW and EV startup Canoo, but these reportedly didn’t go anywhere.

Apple Car + McLaren

McLaren 750S Spider in show room

(Image credit: McLaren)

If the Mercedes partnership didn’t seem crazy enough, Gurman writes that the closest Apple got to a solid deal was by almost acquiring McLaren. Best known for its Formula 1 and racing prowess, McLaren also sells a few thousand hand-built cars every year — and for exorbitant prices. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cheapest models, with costs rising into the millions for others.

Again that’s a pretty perfect fit for a company like Apple, who is no stranger to selling outrageously expensive first-generation hardware to those willing to pay for it.

Gurman also claims that had this deal gone through, former Apple designer Jony Ive would have had a new design studio in London to work on the Apple Car. And, who knows, if the deal hadn’t fallen apart maybe he’d have stayed at Apple instead of leaving to help found a new design company.

A turning point for the Apple Car

apple carplay being used wirelessly

(Image credit: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Gurman, a major pivot in the Apple Car project came around 2016, when various people were questioning the viability of the car given all the delays. It was at this point Apple pivoted to focus less on the car, and more on the self-driving software inside it. However, this eventually started looking a lot less attainable because, well, creating a car that can replace a human driver 100% of the time is actually incredibly difficult. 

It got to the point where engineers hired for the Apple project had become disillusioned and were actively seeking work elsewhere. Which is never a good sign.

It got to the point where engineers hired for the Apple project had become disillusioned and were actively seeking work elsewhere. Which is never a good sign.

Earlier this year we heard news that Apple was lowering its expectations and would initially work on a car with level 2 autonomous driving. This means that while the car could autonomously control steering and acceleration it would still need the driver to be attentive and ready to take over at a moment’s notice. 

Considering how common level 2 autonomy is on modern cars, including those at relatively low price points, it’s not the kind of conclusion you needed to spend 10 years of development on. So it seems that Apple’s grand ambitions, over-confidence and constant strive for perfectionism on new products meant the Apple Car was not to be.

That means the closest we’ll get to seeing the Apple Car in action is the new version of CarPlay that's going to start rolling out to certain cars later this year.

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Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.