FCA's Sergio Marchionne wants to help Apple make electric cars

March 3, 2016

Last year, Sergio Marchionne made headlines with his dogged pursuit of Mary Barra. The Fiat Chrysler CEO was bound and determined to partner with Barra's General Motors, and he even considered a hostile takeover of FCA's Detroit-based competitor.

It was a very weird, slightly stalker-y tale of unrequited love, and thankfully, it appears to have reached its end with every bunny intact. But Marchionne isn't done wooing: according to Bloomberg, he may now be courting Apple.

Speaking at the Geneva Motor Show, the professed "Apple freak" said that Apple would be wise to work with an existing automaker to develop its rumored electric car. What's more, Marchionne said that he--and by extension, FCA--is perfectly suited to partner with Apple because he understands the company's "syntax". It's not entirely clear whether Marchionne was referring to Apple's notoriously proprietary ideas about technology, its corporate goals, or something else entirely.

Marchionne didn't say whether he'd had formal meetings with Apple about its plans. However, he assumed that Apple has surveyed the automaking landscape, and that FCA has "the credibility to be one of the players they have looked at". Tim Cook, if you're reading this, expect an email shortly.

Apple, for its part, has never fully admitted that it's working on a vehicle of its own, but numerous reports of the company's growing Project Titan division have leaked to the press since last summer. Based on those rumors--which include poaching battery engineers--it appears that Apple is taking a slightly different approach to vehicles than its rivals at Google, who seem focused on automotive technology rather than building actual rides. An Apple-branded car could be available for sale as early as 2019.

IS MARCHIONNE RIGHT?

Building cars is a complicated business--so much so that some automakers are laying plans for two very different development tracks for new vehicles. One involves the building of cars, which will remain on a six- or seven-year cycle. The other involves building technology for those cars, which can be rolled out at a much faster pace.

That's not to say that Apple isn't capable of running two separate divisions. However, that's certainly not the path it's followed with its most profitable devices, like the iPhone. Though Apple engineers write the code for such products, the company has outsourced manufacturing to Foxconn for many, many years. Who's to say that Apple couldn't do the same with cars, using an established manufacturer like FCA?

The big difference, of course, is that Foxconn doesn't compete with Apple. It's solely a manufacturing facility, so there's no conflict of interest.

FCA, however, would most definitely be a competitor, manufacturing its own vehicles to vie with those that it's made for Apple. That could make for some sticky situations.

Then again, we've seen many, many automotive partnerships in the past that could be considered comparable. GM and Toyota, for example, teamed up to create the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix, which were essentially the same car, competing for the same customers. There's no reason to think that Apple and FCA couldn't work under similar conditions.

The question would then become, given Apple's reputation brand loyalty, could FCA compete with its partner?

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