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What is the Apple Car? Even Apple doesn’t know.

It could take a couple more years before Apple’s direction becomes clear.

The Grossglockner High Alpine Road Jan Hetfleisch / Getty

If Apple’s letter to federal automobile regulators clears up anything, it is that Apple has not given up on its car ambitions.

But there is a danger in reading too much into each little step in the process.

Just because Apple shuffled things around a couple months ago didn’t mean it was out of the car business. This letter doesn’t mean the Apple Car is now a thing.

The smart read, for now, is that Apple remains interested in cars and probably will be for the foreseeable future. And that interest translates to significant investment, hiring and testing of concepts. At the same time, it hasn’t figured out just where or if it will play.

Getting into a whole new business will require years of investments, explorations and adjustments. Apple is clearly in that process, though the result is far from certain.

That said, here are a few things that are clear:

  • Apple needs a next big thing. It doesn’t have to be the Apple Car, but it has to be something. Iterating on the phone, tablet and computer are fine and dandy, but for Apple to justify its market capitalization it needs to enter and grab a significant share of a significant market.
  • Apple can’t take forever to decide if the car is that thing.
  • Even though it's a long game, many companies that are serious about creating the cars of tomorrow are making fairly big and public investments, striking deals and setting deadlines. Also, it matters when it comes to hiring and retaining the best people: Workers want to know they are building a real thing.
  • Just the threat of Apple in the car business is probably a good thing, spurring the entire industry to move faster and smarter.

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