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Details on whether Apple's next big project is a car remained shrouded in mystery until recently, when Apple chief executive Tim Cook disclosed that the company is focusing on creating software that powers self-driving automobiles. He said the software was the company's "most important project in artificial intelligence."

Even before Cook's on-the-record remarks, tell-tale signs suggested that Apple's secret project was indeed coming closer to reality. The company recently acquired a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars, for example. Leaked photos of a Lexus SUV set up with sensors leaving the Apple's premises have circulated the web. Apple has apparently hired a team of automotive engineers. These clues add up to an inescapable conclusion.

Beyond that, biographers say that before Apple's former CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011, he was already considering applying the company's technology to the task of building an intelligent car.

Apple has invested a billion dollars in Didi, a Chinese version of Uber. Cook has not specified what kinds of projects the two companies expect to collaborate on over time. The partnership might be Apple's "first step in its autonomous pursuits," according to Morgan Stanley, a global financial services firm. The firm added that "Apple will eventually move beyond just software into designing a full car and/or launching a platform for third party services and content over time" and expects that "the company's effort would take time and money, and competition will be fierce."

Analysts say collaborating with car makers is a more practical route for Apple than actually manufacturing cars. The company can also consider making self-driving cars available for daily rentals or putting them to use for on-demand rides. Or it could create a personal-assistant on wheels by upgrading its Siri artificial intelligence aide and putting the technology in automobiles.

Experts say Apple may start with a "platform play" by making a self-driving car system that partners into vehicles bult by others. If the software syncs with iPhones, iPads, HomePod, and other Apple products, it could strengthen the company's entire product line. 

Photo: Brandon Daniel / Wikimedia Commons