When racing cars have only hundredths of seconds between them, in a race where the time to change a tire means the difference between winning and losing (and the impact on millions of dollars in sponsorship), a company gets good at technology. Fast. The data from drivers, cars and engines has to be parsed and acted upon literally in real-time. That’s why the racing industry’s influence on the wider automotive industry has long been likened to the influence, say, that the demands of the NASA programme had on Silicon Valley in its earlier days.
Out of all the racing car teams, it’s the UK-based McLaren that has built this kind of reputation. And it’s for this reason that Apple, which has long been rumoured to be developing a car, might want to get closer to the company, or even buy it. For now, McLaren has denied reports of an acquisition. But that does not mean Apple could not get involved in some other way, perhaps as an investor, so that it could get first access to the new technologies coming out of McLaren.
But it’s really not McLaren, the racing car company which competes in races around the world, that is likely to be the apple of Apple’s eye, but a particular arm of the company.
Five years ago, McLaren launched an ‘innovation’ subsidiary firm, McLaren Applied Technologies. MAT took the knowledge and practices of the racing industry and started to apply them in just about every industry you can think of.
MAT has designed better health monitoring systems; created a scheduling system for Heathrow Airport that reduces flight delays; cut the time oil and gas drillers spend on exploration based on better data; sped up drug trials run by pharmaceutical companies and reduced the time their production plants are idle.
The key is measurement. When you have to monitor and measure a racing car (and its driver) in realtime then you get very good at taking data from sensors, parsing it and feeding that into decision-making.
MAT pioneered VR simulators for drivers long before they began to emerge again in recent years. And for pursuit cyclists, who race single-speed bikes around a velodrome, they created a device under the seat that logs data and sends information to the coach on torque, speed, power, and other metrics, in real-time. They also created a system to log data coming in from players in the English national rugby team, again in real-time. This could determine, for instance, how tired a player was and how susceptible to injury they might be.
MAT has gradually risen to prominence under the watchful eyes of CEO Ian Rhodes and Chief Innovation Officer Geoff McGrath, an engineer who started in the oil and gas industry, but has also worked in telecommunications. That relatively unique, cross-discipline, experience means McGrath has been able to build up an almost unrivalled team at the company’s HQ, ever so slightly hidden in the countryside, south-west of London.
But while buying McLaren could be a way to acquire many engineers who know how to make a whole car, McLaren has said it’s not having investment discussions with Apple right now.
Reportedly the company could cost between $1.3 billion and $2 billion (between £1 billion and £1.5 billion), so ‘par for the course’ in today’s technology industry where strategic investments are made.
The likelihood of Apple picking up the whole of McLaren and getting into motor racing is slim. Apple is more likely to want the incredible team and technologies developed inside MAT, while McLaren needs MAT to maintain its competitiveness in racing.
And who would say no to a strategic investment from the most interesting technology giant in the world that apparently also wants to make the cars of the future?