It seemed almost too good to be true: a rumour that Tesla Motors and BMW, two of the world’s most dedicated plug-in manufacturers, were considering a mutually-beneficial partnership in order to share electric car battery and lightweight carbon-fibre construction technology. A partnership which no doubt would have enabled Tesla to build lighter, more efficient cars, and BMW to build longer-range cars with cheaper battery packs.
[UPDATE, December 2, 2014: We’ve been contacted by Tesla Spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean, who has asked us to add an official Tesla statement to both this story, and the original coverage we gave the Der Spiegel Article last week. You’ll find the quote at the end of this article.]
In all honesty, had such a rumour come from an anonymous source, we’d have discounted it pretty quickly. But when the source was non other than Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] CEO Elon Musk in an official interview with German-language magazine Der Spiegel, we had to sit up and take notice.
Yet as quickly as the rumour spread last week following the publishing of the Musk interview in Der Spiegel, German automaker BMW has spoken up to let the automotive world know that the likelihood of a partnership isn’t the foregone conclusion some may have thought.
Contrary to Musk, who dropped some pretty big hints last week that BMW and Tesla were in fairly serious talks about technology sharing, BMW says it has no plans at the current time to work together with Tesla on shared technology. Nor is it about to help Tesla build a German lithium-ion battery manufacturing and reprocessing Gigafactory.
Moreover, BMW officials said, the company had no interest in buying Tesla shares either, putting to bed another recent rumour which suggested BMW was about to acquire some of the Tesla shares recently sold off by Toyota and Daimler.
Further, officials from BMW say with an air of distain, Elon Musk was posturing for publicity by name-dropping BMW.
It’s worth noting however that while BMW is openly non-committal on a future official manufacturing or technology partnership with Tesla, it isn’t discounting the possibility of trading Tesla’s cold, hard cash in exchange for its carbon fibre-reinforced plastic production techniques.
Lighter, stronger and more energy-efficient to manufacture than traditional construction materials, CFRP is used by BMW to make its BMW i3 electric car and BMW i8 plug-in hybrid electric car as energy efficient and as environmentally-friendly as possible. At the time of writing, BMW’s CFRP production facilities far exceed the CFRP volumes of any other automaker.
Were Tesla to enquire about purchasing BMW-manufactured CFRP the German automaker said, it would be more than happy to consider selling to the Californian company. But in that context, it reiterated, the business relationship would be treated in the same way as any other automaker wishing to pay for BMW’s expertise.
We’re sure that some of our readers will view this as BMW splitting hairs somewhat, since it hasn’t completely discounted the possibility of selling carbon fibre components to Tesla. But in this case, it’s the particular nomenclature that is important.
Tesla, and its CEO Elon Musk, aim to build business relationships wherever possible that are mutually beneficial to both parties, following something of an open-source or at least symbiotic relationship. As Musk himself said when Tesla released its patents earlier this year, Tesla’s hope is that companies who want to use Tesla’s battery or other patents will do so in a quid-pro-quo relationship, sharing their own technology in exchange for Tesla’s.
That, to Tesla, is the ideal partnership, where its own ideas are exchanged for ones from another automaker in the same sphere.
Yet to automakers like BMW, that’s a scary proposition which could, conceivably, open it up to letting more of its intellectual property pass to a direct competitor. When that competitor has openly discussed the idea of its third-generation electric car being a “3-Series” competitor, that’s even more risky.
By keeping any relationships with Tesla along a purely business-to-business base, BMW keeps the potential of income alive without sharing any of its own secrets.
[UPDATE: Official Statement from Tesla Spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean, December 2, 2014]
“The story is pretty straightforward. Elon was asked a question by Der Spiegel, he answered it honestly and frankly, and the reporters wrote down the answer. Everything beyond Elon’s offhand remarks was speculation, and I’m sorry to say that the reports do not reflect the true nature of the events. Good for headlines, bad for accuracy. Not only did Elon not “talk up a partnership” with BMW, we actively sought to squash any such rumors the moment they surfaced. Elon respects BMW as a company and we have talked informally about many things, but at no point did he claim there was any partnership or serious discussions.”
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