It's time to retire comparisons between Apple and Tesla, once and for all


For years, comparisons between Apple and Tesla haven't merely been commonplace — they've been expected. 

Some of this could be chalked up to timing. Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs died in 2011, leaving the tech world with a visionary vacuum. Tesla was on the verge of launching its first original vehicle, the Model S sedan, positioning Elon Musk to assume Jobs' role as America's reigning business futurist.

Tesla was also a creation of Silicon Valley. The indigenous US auto industry was represented by the Big Three — General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler — which had emerged in Detroit a century before, when California was better known for a burgeoning film industry and as an agricultural powerhouse.

Tesla was, therefore, the new Apple, Musk the next Jobs, and the goal of creating an all-electric automobile that would rescue the planet from global warming was the 21st-century version of the personal computer revolution that Apple had led in the 1980s.

It sounded great, but there was a problem: Musk wasn't playing along.

Instead, he was to emulate a much, much older American visionary: Henry Ford.

Elon wants to be more like Henry — Henry Ford

Ford pioneered the moving assembly line to build the Model T, cutting production time to 90 minutes and making it the most successful vehicle of its age. Later, Ford created the paradigm for what we now call "vertical integration" in manufacturing: the River Rouge plant in Michigan, which was completed in 1928 and at one point literally had train cars filled with iron ore rolling up to one end of the facility, finished cars rolling out the other.

Musk is obsessed with this famous factory's legacy, in part because the global car business completely abandoned vertical integration in the 1980s. Toyota developed a new production system that emphasized greatly reduced inventories and enabled automakers to dial-up or dial-down manufacturing depending on consumer demand. In combination with far-flung global supply chains, a new process called "lean" manufacturing displaced vertical integration.

But Musk wants Tesla to push manufacturing into a new, highly automated, 21st-century iteration, and for that, he needs to control far more of what goes into every Tesla vehicle, from batteries to seats, software to windshield glass, self-driving sensors to chassis components. 

This back-to-the-future approach means that Tesla is, in fact, doing the opposite of what Apple has done. Cupertino is certainly invested in owning the user experience, establishing what's often termed a "walled garden" ecosystem where an Apple person lives in an all-Apple world.

However, Apple in essence is a design, software, and marketing company that manufactures effectively nothing except intellectual property and staggering profit margins. Millions of iPhones have been assembled by partners in Asia, and it's a testament to CEO Tim Cook's genius and supply-chain management that Apple has thrived in the post-Job era.

Tesla, meanwhile, is trending toward manufacturing just about everything that goes into its vehicles. In fact, Musk has frequently complained that the carmaker's progress has a speed limit set by exactly one obstacle: the company's slowest supplier.

Elon sticks to his gameplan

Musk has been admirably stubborn in sticking to his gameplan, going so far as to openly criticize the so-called Toyota Production System, a jaw-dropping but understandable move. He thinks Tesla can do better, with quickly built factories that are filled with robots rather than human workers. He dreams of cars being built like Coca-Cola is currently bottled, on whirring automated assembly lines, and Tesla has started to explore this innovation in the fabrication of its new, larger lithium-ion battery cells. (Tesla has also seen the dream turn nightmarish when it attempted to automate the assembly line for its Model 3 sedan in 2017 and had to resort to throwing up a legitimately Henry Ford-era temporary line under a tent in its parking lot.)

That doesn't mean competitors aren't looking to emulate the Apple model and produce the iPhone of cars. Apple itself is probably looking to follow its own model, with its fraught Project Titan effort. Serial entrepreneur Henrik Fisker has stressed that his new company, Fisker Inc., is pursuing an "asset-light" approach, partnering with Canada's Magna International to build a debut vehicle, the Ocean SUV, by 2022, and joining with noted iPhone-maker Foxconn to produce another, dubbed "Project PEAR," by 2023.

The traditional auto industry is splitting the difference. General Motors is investing $27 billion to roll out 30 EVs by 2025 — and the automaking giant is both converting existing factories to EV production while partnering with battery supplier LG Chem to build a new factory in Ohio. If you wanted to break it down, you could say that GM is aiming to be asset-medium, versus Fisker's asset-light and Tesla's asset-heavy.

Each system has a reasonable shot at winning. GM knows what it's doing. Tesla could slash the amount of time it takes to get factories up and running and cars rolling off the lines. Fisker could rapidly establish a fresh transportation brand, accomplishing in two years what Tesla needed two decades to achieve.

But one thing is for sure: Tesla is absolutely, positively not the Apple of cars. It's about time to retire that comparison, once and for all.