Did Tim Cook Just Give Us A Hint About Apple Cars?

"We will see what we do in the future."

Despite persistent rumors that Apple is developing an electric vehicle, the tech giant hasn't actually copped to working on one. In a recent appearance, CEO Tim Cook touched on the topic of cars, offering what some hope are hints at company's plans.

"We will see what we do in the future," Cook said when asked about autos on Monday night at WSJDLive, The Wall Street Journal’s technology conference. "I do think that industry is at an inflection point for massive change, not just evolutionary change."

In a lively discussion with Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Journal, Cook said that Apple wants people to have an “iPhone experience” in their car.

On the one hand, Cook might simply be referring to CarPlay, Apple's approach to integrating an iPhone with a car

Some analysts have tried to put the brakes on rumors about a so-called "Apple Car," suggesting that Apple is interested in making software for cars, not cars themselves. A streamlined version of iOS in dashboards could be welcome -- or pull the driver away from the road. Distracted driving is a huge problem throughout the world. Although technology can help, people are doing much more than texting now. 

On the other hand, Cook might just be referring to something much bigger: a wholesale reinvention of the car experience, akin to what Apple did with the Macintosh and personal computing in the 198os -- or with the iPhone in 2007. There's clearly room to build better cars that integrate software and hardware with beautiful design, as Elon Musk has shown with Tesla.

Despite Cook's somewhat coy demurral on stage yesterday, the Journal has reported in the past that Apple is aiming to unleash an electric car as soon as 2019. In September, the paper said that Apple was accelerating its efforts to build an electric car, committing to "Project Titan" internally and increasing the size of the team working on it to some 1,800 staff.

Something is clearly going on in Cupertino, California. Over the past year, Apple has recruited engineers from Teslahired battery engineers and hired key engineers away from Mission Motors, which was developing an electric motorcycle.

The Journal reports that Cook has put Apple Vice President Steve Zadesky in charge of the firm's automotive research lab. Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who has worked at Apple for 16 years, was a key leader on the teams that created the original iPod and iPhone.

Even if making cars more connected creates more security and privacy risks, the trend toward more automation and intelligence entering the automobile has accelerated in the last decade, with more to come.

“When I look at the automobile, what I see is that software becomes an increasingly important part of the car of the future," Cook said Monday. "You see that autonomous driving becomes much more important. And so [do] a lot of the major technologies in the car shift. Electrification, etc — they shift from today's combustion engine-centric kind of focus. And so it would seem like there will be massive change in that industry, massive change."

Apple has reportedly leased a minivan and equipped it with sensors, much like the early versions of the self-driving cars Google has been developing. It's likely that any iCar will have some autonomous features, like Tesla's auto-pilot, but as with all of these rumors, it's best to be skeptical. What we do know is that Apple is investing in the area. Stay tuned.