Why Apple's Car Could Take Years to Hit the Road

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By David Montalvo

For tech gear lovers waiting to rip the roads in Apple's eagerly-awaited car, there's good news and bad news. The good is an Apple car is becoming an increasingly likely reality.

The bad news? That reality may be years away, one analyst said this week, perhaps longer than most would expect.

When the tech giant's plans to hit the highways were first floated, reports suggested a prototype could appear around 2020. As experts like BMW have pointed out, the process from concept to physical reality can take at least five years. However, for a company with no experience in auto manufacturing, that timetable could be too optimistic.

"We believe the auto industry represents a significant opportunity for Apple, but we also expect Apple to be deliberate as always in its product development and testing," said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, in a note this week.

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For months now, rumors have swirled about Apple's secretive car efforts, said to be called Project Titan, that include the iPhone maker hiring employees from the auto industry and engaging with autonomous vehicle testing facility GoMentum.

Separately, Google has long been tinkering with self-driving vehicles (not without recent challenges), while Uber is said to be working on similar projects at its Carnegie Mellon lab, including robotics. Tesla, meanwhile, continues to churn out its own fleet of sleek, energy-efficient and technologically advanced cars.

Considering the competitive, secretive, talent-poaching nature of Silicon Valley, Apple would be squaring off against the three of them—as well as entrenched auto makers.

"If Apple makes a 'car' as we know it today, we expect it to be an electric vehicle that is likely priced in the luxury market," Munster wrote, "given Apple's focus not only on environmentally friendly products today, but its vision to deliver future technologies even if they are a few years early."

Still, given the Valley's quick innovation pace, the car as we know it today could well be different from the one a decade from now. That's when Munster believes Apple—should Project Titan become a reality—could release its car. Yet the odds of that happening, he notes, are now between 50 and 60 percent.

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The prospects of an iCar, meanwhile, could be a positive for Apple's shares, a long-time investment darling that has fallen from grace and into correction territory this year. At one point in last month, its stock swooned into bear market territory.

That decline is "an expression of risk aversion, and just the fear that Apple investors have that the company is just going to fall off a cliff at any moment," venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told Re/code this week.

An automobile, however, "will impact AAPL's multiple as investors increasingly view the opportunity as a long term growth driver," Munster said.

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So exactly what kind of wheels can consumers expect from the world's most valuable company? The analyst suggested Apple could opt for a luxury vehicle that is "aerodynamically optimized" and connected, has an automation feature, elegant design and likely to cost around $50,000 and up.

However, there's a caveat. With the dynamics of the marketplace, "It is possible that a car by Apple may look completely different than what we think of as a typical car today," Munster added.