Apple Inc. (AAPL) Has Patents on an Existential Threat to Tesla Motors Inc

Elon Musk Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA) and SolarCity Corp (SCTY)

Apple Inc. iPhone owners are usually happy with the firm. Tim Cook has cultivated an incredibly high level of loyalty among buyers, but one complaint comes up again and again. The iPhone dies too quickly, its battery just isn’t big enough to do everything users want to do. The firm may have an answer to that issue soon, and Tesla Motors Inc might want to watch out.

Elon Musk Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA)

A patent for solid state battery tech was granted to Apple by the US Patent office back in 2013, but it only came to light this week after Patently Apple picked up a filing related to it. Tesla Motors isn’t focused all that much on making new kinds of batteries. Elon Musk and JB Straubel, the duo in charge of the firm’s strategic plans, are much more focused on making them as cheap as possible right now.

Apple charges ahead in battery tech

Solid State power cells have a number of advantages over the traditional liquid electrolyte units used in cars like the Tesla Motors Model S. They can have higher energy densities than the cells in use today, while at the same time being safer.

Solid state cells could reduce the chances of overheating, something that Tesla Motors, and other EV makers, have struggled with.

Back in January of 2014 Toyota said that it was working on solid state power cell tech for cars, but the firm said it didn’t expect to have a product ready until well into next decade. If Apple is on the case that might not be fast enough.

Back in September Bosch said its own solid state cells could be ready for cars in just five years, while startup Solid Power announced last week that it was making progress with its Sulfur-lithium tech and would have large scale prototypes ready before the end of the year.

Apple Inc. clearly has an interest in solid state batteries because it could allow the firm to make its portable computing devices even thinner, while at the same time making them last longer on a single charge.

The patent published this week relates to a system of charging and managing power in a device with such a battery, so it’s not clear that the firm has actually put together that sort of tech just yet, though the firm certainly seems to have people working on it.

That doesn’t mean Apple doesn’t have that tech, however. The firm keeps a certain amount of its designs and ideas in the background in complete secret in order to prevent it losing ground to rivals. Cupertino may not even need to have a handle on the actual designs in order to make sure it’s the first to put them in an EV.

Tesla Motors is working on battery tech too

Tesla Motors may have begun its business using off the shelf components, but the firm has changed its tack in recent years. With the release of the firm’s Ludicrous Speed upgrade for the Model X Elon Musk revealed that his firm had found a way to put silicon in the anode.

That’s something that was a necessary condition for the function of Ludicrous speed, and something that has eluded other battery makers for years.

Tesla Motors Inc isn’t one for publishing power cell patents. Despite the firm’s “All our patents are belong to you” promise, most of the firm’s real technical secrets are kept that way. Patents have to be published, and Tesla Motors doesn’t want to show the world how it lays out its battery packs, or how the cells themselves are being improved.

For the most part Tesla Motors has focused its efforts on making the power cells its cars run on more cost efficient. That’s the logic behind the $5B Gigafactory being built right now in Reno, Nevada. The plant will massively increase the supply of lithium-ion batteries on the market, and make a Model 3 price tag of $35,000 possible.

James Albertine of Stifel reckons that the battery plant is key to the firm’s future. “As they dig deeper on potential cost efficiencies related to battery cell/pack production more investors will agree that TSLA’s competitive advantages appear to be growing not fading,” he wrote in a September report on the plant.

The problem is, if those working on solid state batteries are believed, that new tech could make those cost savings redundant. The greater safety of solid batteries could reduce costs by getting rid of cooling systems and safety guards that are no longer necessary.

Getting ready for a battery war at Tesla Motors

Tesla Motors’ focus on the Gigafactory betrays one simple fact about the EV business: It’s all about the battery. If another firm can get to a better power cell tech faster than Tesla Motors can, it might be able to leapfrog the firm in the EV space.

Apple is, if a constant barrage of rumors are to be taken as indication, working on its own EV right now. “Project Titan” is mostly a mystery, but reports seem to agree that the car will be all-electric. If Apple does manage to create a better kind of battery, it may be able to give Tesla Motors a run for its money.

Building a car is hard, of course, but there’s little reason to believe Apple Inc. will fail to come to terms with the industry. Tim Cook is basically a logistics genius, and no other firm is building 200 million complex, differentiated products every single year with only minor supply hiccups.

Cars are much more complicated, but Apple has a history of outsourcing manufacturing. If it’s able to handle the supply chain better than Tesla Motors, something that might not be too hard given the Model X kerfuffle, and deliver a better power cell, the firm may be able to compete in the market right off of the starting block.

It’s not very likely that the iPhone 7 will have a solid state battery, or that Apple will have a car out with that kind of tech in the next couple of years. It’s clear, however, that better battery tech could really undermine what Tesla Motors is doing in Nevada, and put the firm’s entire business plan at risk.

This is all speculation of course, but Tesla Motors Inc , in forecasting its future, will be aware of two important facts. Apple is working on a car, and the firm may be ahead of Tesla itself in some aspects of power cell tech.

We hear about revolutionary power cell tech all the time, but it’s very rare for it to result in a product. The fact that Apple is working with ideas around solid state, however, mean it may be more likely to arrive in some form sooner rather than later.

For the rest we’re going to have to wait and see, but, barring any new patents from Tesla Motors, Apple may be the firm to watch in mass market battery tech. That is unless Toyota’s solid state dreams come to some sort of fruition.

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