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Apple approached Nissan to work on autonomous car project

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Apple approached Japan’s Nissan in recent months about a tie-up for its secretive autonomous car project, but talks are no longer active, according to people briefed on the matter. 

The contact was brief and the discussions did not advance to senior management levels following divisions over branding for the iPhone maker’s electric vehicles, the people added.

Apple also recently halted talks with South Korea’s Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia, underscoring the challenges of finding an automotive partner for its car efforts, known as Project Titan.

Apple has been exploring entering the industry for some years, with carmakers including BMW previously sounded out as potential partners.

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But the tech group has changed leadership and strategy within its Project Titan team several times, as it considered the best way to break into the fiercely competitive and capital-intensive market for passenger cars.

The Silicon Valley company’s talks with Hyundai sparked an intense guessing game over which other manufacturers could partner with Apple, with the market focusing on Japan’s eight carmakers.

Shares in Nissan briefly rose 5.6 per cent on Wednesday after chief executive Makoto Uchida signalled his openness to working with technology groups when asked during an earnings presentation whether the company had been approached by Apple. 

But one person with knowledge of the discussions said talks faltered after the US company asked that Nissan make Apple-branded cars, a demand that would effectively downgrade the automaker to a hardware supplier.

Many carmakers have expressed a fear of becoming “the Foxconn of the auto industry”, a reference to the Taiwanese manufacturing group that assembles iPhones.

Apple declined to comment.

Ashwani Gupta, Nissan’s chief operating officer, said the Japanese group “is not” in talks with Apple, whose interest in entering the auto industry goes back to 2014. 

“We have our own customer satisfaction, which comes by car. No way we are going to change the way we make cars,” Gupta said in an interview with the Financial Times. “The way we design, the way we develop, and the way we manufacture is going to be as an automotive manufacturer, as Nissan.” 

Gupta said the company was open to exploring partnerships with tech groups to adapt to the shift towards connected vehicles and autonomous driving, pointing to collaborations with Google and other start-ups. 

But he added: “We have to check who has got the best competency to catch what the customer is thinking. For this, we can do the partnership, but that is to adapt their services to our product, not vice versa.” 

Analysts have said Nissan, which has an alliance with France’s Renault and Mitsubishi Motors, could be a good fit for Apple. 

The Japanese company was a pioneer of electric vehicles with the launch of the Leaf in 2010. Nissan also has capacity in its US plants after the lossmaking group shifted from focusing on volume to profitability.

But Mio Kato, an analyst who writes on the Smartkarma platform, said Nissan lacked the scale of rivals such as Toyota to make the type of large investments required for autonomous driving technology.

Some analysts believed Apple could disrupt the automotive industry, although it is unclear what sort of technology it could provide beyond the power of its brand.

Apple has been testing driverless technologies in California for years. The company disclosed last week that its back-up drivers had to intervene once every 145 miles of testing. By contrast, Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, and GM’s Cruise each managed to travel on average nearly 30,000 miles each before a single “disengagement”.

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