Technology

Tesla chief Elon Musk says Apple is making an electric car

Media captionTesla's Elon Musk says he does not feel threatened by Apple's plan for an electric car

Tesla's owner, Elon Musk, has said it is an "open secret" that Apple is making a rival electric car.

He also predicted vehicles that could not drive themselves would become a "strange anachronism" before too long.

The tech entrepreneur's comments were made during an exclusive interview with the BBC at his design studio near Los Angeles.

Tesla vies with Nissan and BMW to be the world's bestselling electric-car brand, but currently runs at a loss.

An added challenge is that over recent months several of its engineers have been hired by rivals, including China-backed Faraday Future and Apple.

Apple has not formally announced it is working on a vehicle, although it did recently register several automobile-related internet domains, including apple.car and apple.auto.

Image caption Elon Musk was born in South Africa and made his fortune from Zip2, a web software company, and the money transfer service PayPal

Mr Musk said it was "obvious" that the company would try to make a compelling car of its own.

"It's pretty hard to hide something if you hire over a thousand engineers to do it," he said.

But he did not see the iPhone-maker as a threat.

"It will expand the industry," he said.

"Tesla will still aspire to make the most compelling electric vehicles, and that would be our goal, while at the same time helping other companies to make electric cars as well."

Push to summon

Mr Musk outlined a vision of a future where all cars would be electric and autonomous, and driving yourself would become a hobby rather than a necessity.

Image caption Tesla's design studio is based at Hawthorne, California

Tesla's Model S - a sports car that ranges from £56,000 to £85,000 depending on the chosen battery capacity and performance - has been one of the bestselling electric cars of recent years.

In recent months, its Autopilot feature has given the car a number of autonomous driving features:

  • keeping in lane
  • adjusting its speed as other cars cut in
  • changing lane without the driver needing to intervene

Last weekend, it gained a new "beta" feature that allows owners to summon their car with their smartphone.

Media captionElon Musk hopes we'll summon our cars in the future

"[With] the current version of Summon, the car will come and find you if you're on private property," Mr Musk said.

"The car will exit the garage, close the garage behind it and come over to you.

"This is the first baby step - ultimately you'll be able to summon the car from New York if you're living in LA, and it will drive across the country, charge itself at the various locations and come to you."

This may sound like a vision of the distant future, but Mr Musk says it could be feasible in "a couple of years."

Sentimental drivers

At both last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and this week's Detroit Motor Show, a number of other car makers have shown off innovations in electric vehicles and automated driving.

Mr Musk said electrification and autonomy were the two biggest innovations in the industry since the moving production line.

"In the long term, nobody will buy a car unless it's autonomous," he said.

"Owning a car that is not self-driving in the long term will be like owning a horse - you would own it and use it for sentimental reasons but not for daily use."

At this stage, Tesla produces only luxury models and is still making big losses.

Image caption The relatively high cost of the Tesla Model S, when compared to petrol-based cars, has limited its sales

Its founder admitted that its future would depend on the cheaper Model 3 version, which he said would go into production at the end of 2017.

"Unless there's an affordable car, we will only have a small impact on the world.

"We need to make a car that most people can afford, in order to have a substantial impact."

Making rockets

Mr Musk has two other businesses, rocket company Space X and energy supplier SolarCity.

Space X has also lost huge sums since it was founded, but last month it succeeded in landing its Falcon rocket upright after launching satellites into orbit.

Mr Musk now hopes to repeat the feat, using a floating barge in the Pacific Ocean as the landing pad.

He said making rockets reusable would transform the economics of the space industry.

"At the beginning I thought Space X and Tesla had a 10% chance of success. So, I'm quite surprised to see we're alive," he said.

"[It's] great, I wasn't expecting that."

Space X is in fierce competition with Blue Origin, the rocket business owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos - but when asked about the rivalry Mr Musk answered: "Jeff who?"

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