Update: Apple may well be further along with introducing a self, driving electric car than we though. A new report released on August 14 suggests Apple is already in the works to secure a test site for its rumored automobile near San Francisco.
Apple is to the rumour mill what Jeremy Clarkson is to offending people. The brand's every product sparks gossip and insider chit-chat in the run-up to its release – the Apple Watch had even the most knowledgeable tech head guessing about specifics right up to its unveiling. The phones, laptops, tablets et al are known unknowns until they appear.
However, there's another category of Apple rumour: the unknown unknowns. The gadgets that Apple is rumoured to be working on, but which never appear. The Watch was in this category for a long time. The Apple Television remains the subject of speculation, despite the lack of any evidence that one has ever even been worked on.
And then there's the car. Like the TV, it was another supposed pet project of the late Steve Jobs. Here's everything you need to know about it, all the reasons why it's highly unlikely, and a few reasons why it might just be something more than fanboy fantasy…
Gossip from way back when
Wall Street Journal tech writers Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Ramsey released a story at the beginning of February that set the rumour mill turning. According to the report, several hundred employees are said to be working on an Apple-branded electric car at a secret lab in Cupertino, one that CEO Tim Cook green lit almost a year ago.
But tales of a so-called "iCar" date back almost eight years, to when Volkswagen was reportedly in talks with the tech giant about incorporating products into its vehicles – although this likely turned out to be a discussion surrounding Apple's CarPlay infotainment system rather than anything Apple Car related.
However, Steve Jobs alluded to the potential of an Apple-branded vehicle when he told John Markoff of The New York Times that if he had more energy, he would have liked to "take on Detroit."
Whether this was merely Jobs hinting at a progressive in-car entertainment system rather than a revolutionary vehicle is anyone's guess, but last year Apple board member Mickey Drexler reiterated the fact that Jobs was interested in cars during an interview with Paul Goldberger.
He stated with much confidence that if Jobs had lived he was going to design an "iCar". Drexler is stepping down from Apple's board this month.
The rumours resurface
Mike Ramsey, an automotive reporter working in Detroit, co-wrote a piece that started all of this in the Wall Street Journal early last month, stating that Apple was working on a top secret project dubbed "Titan" that supposedly involves hundreds of employees working on an Apple-branded vehicle.
Ramsey said that alarms bells were raised in Silicon Valley with Apple's unusual hiring of staff outside of the consumer technology arena.
"Apple hired the head of research and development from Mercedes-Benz's North American R&D labs and that was a pretty odd hiring," Ramsey said in a recent interview.
"You can understand that maybe Apple did this to move its CarPlay research on, but it seems this level of experience goes way beyond simple in-car entertainment systems."
After the story was published, California residents added fuel to the flames by claiming that vans registered to Apple had been seen cruising the streets, sporting all manner of LIDAR and radar technology.
Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer at the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, told Cult of Mac that these data-gathering vans appeared to be mapping the streets.
Apple Car naysayers instantly hit back with an argument that Apple was, in fact, gathering data for its own version of Google's Street View rather than working on a vehicle. But those with knowledge of autonomous motoring reasoned that self-driving cars require detailed maps to operate. Could Apple's car be an autonomous pod to rival Google's recent work?
Mike Ramsey doesn't think so: "There's no doubt that if Apple moves forward with its car, it would feature autonomous elements.
"But we are a long way off having an affordable vehicle that can drive itself. A pure electric vehicle would be more sensible to pursue because it's very simple.
"There's no engine or exhaust system to engineer, which is the reason why Tesla got involved in the industry in the first place," he adds.
The evidence mounts
Allegations that Apple had been pinching staff from battery manufacturer A123 soon surfaced after the initial "iCar" reports made national news.
According to a lawsuit field against the tech giant, Apple had been poaching A123 staff and Tesla workers for its own battery projects.
Cynics would say that Apple could be doing this merely in order to take its battery research in-house, thus decreasing overheads and potentially speeding up the process. Not a bad thing, considering an iPhone barely lasts a day without needing to plug it in.