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IMAGE: Lowly Worm Apple car by Richard Scarry

The Apple Car: probably not in a showroom near you any time soon…

The discovery of emails between Apple engineer Frank Fearon and a senior manager at GoMentum Station, a former naval base outside San Francisco now being used as a vehicle-testing track, has led The Guardian to confirm that Apple is working on a self-driving vehicle that is ready for road trials.

The British daily’s scoop has prompted widespread speculation, with some pundits wishfully thinking that Apple’s vehicle is much further along the road than thought, or might even be being put through its paces on a test track, revealing the market’s expectations in the company at this level. The news comes after a recent Wall Street Journal interview with designer Mark Newson, who has worked with Apple regularly, in which he bemoans the state of design in the automobile industry, which he describes as “at the bottom of a trough”, and has been interpreted as evidence that the company is about to do something to change that.

For the moment, the closest thing we have to what an Apple Car might look like is the toy illustrated here, based on a drawing by children’s author Richard Scarry. That said, pulling all the rumors together about the project it’s hard not to conclude that the company is working on something automobile-related: it has hired people with experience in the industry, met with the right companies (and at one point even considered buying Tesla), referred to the car as “the ultimate mobile device”, and in general has seemingly spent a lot of time generating rumors that it seems perfectly happy with. It has put together a team with a lot of expertise in battery technology, which could be put to use on electric cars, or just about any other project.

This is without doubt a particularly interesting moment for the self-driving vehicle, with any number of developments related to traditional industry players, along with new entrants from the tech world, working in an environment that would give much thought to a student of strategy, while raising thousands of questions about the real state of the technology, its eventual adoption depending an any number of parameters, along with the repercussions of a world in which we gradually give up driving. It’s hardly surprising that a single news story, coming as it does from one of the planet’s most-powerful companies has sparked so many rumors and comments. But while talking is fine, we need to keep our expectations under control.

It is perfectly possible that Apple is working on self-driving car projects. It has already developed Carplay, which is little more than a dashboard console the size of an iPhone screen. In all likelihood, the company is focusing on aspects such as safety, entertainment, batteries, and self-driving, partly out of self-interest, and partly for the powerful image of innovation that it projects to the world. It is even possible that it has already developed a few prototypes, although I would doubt that it is much more than software or a few additions to third-party-built vehicles. It is even possible that the company wants to find a site where it can quietly put these developments to the test, perhaps jointly with other companies. There is nothing unusual in the company working with other outfits on design: before the iPhone, we had several versions of the Motorola Rokr that could be seen as joint test versions, for example.

I would be surprised if Apple were suddenly to unveil a prototype of a vehicle. The technology required to develop a vehicle takes a lot of time. Tesla took more than three years between setting up the company and launching its first vehicle, and that was pretty fast going. Sure, Apple has very deep pockets, but I just don’t see a vehicle being presented any time soon. To put it mildly, the automobile industry is very different to the consumer electronics sector.

There’s no doubt that Apple is working on something car-related, but that doesn’t mean a vehicle as such: as much as some people might wish, the so-called evidence could be proof of many things that are not necessarily so ambitious. Apple’s strategy will surely be to work with companies with a strong presence in the sector to test the use of certain technologies, or even to develop a technological platform that other companies could opt to apply or license, very much along the lines of Google’s strategy, and anticipating the shift towards seeing cars as things that can do much more than simply be driven. But for the moment, I’d say that the closest we’re going to get to an Apple Car any time soon is in the photograph above.

(En español, aquí)

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School, blogger at enriquedans.com and Senior Contributor at Forbes

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