SAN FRANSISCO (Bloomberg) -- Apple has increased speculation that it will use its massive cash reserves to work on a car after a senior executive seemed to endorse the idea.
Confronted by a shareholder on Wednesday at a rare public forum over where Apple is looking to invest its cash, Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president of operations, seemed to suggest the automotive industry. "The car is the ultimate mobile device, isn't it?" Williams said during the conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
Pressed further by the conference’s co-founder Walt Mossberg, Williams appeared to pull back a little, addressing the importance of Apple's in-car information and entertainment system, CarPlay. "We're exploring a lot of different markets," Williams said.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been facing increased pressure to return cash to shareholders. He meanwhile is moving the company into new areas, including smartwatches and mobile payments, as part of a strategy to further mesh users' lives with Apple's products and services. The company has also been exploring the development of a car and pushing its team to begin production of an electric vehicle as early as 2020, though it might ultimately halt the program, people familiar with the project have said.
Wednesday's event wasn't the first time an investor questioned Apple's future with cars. At Apple's annual shareholder meeting in March, Cook faced questions about a possible marriage with electric carmaker Tesla Motors. He sidestepped the issue. "We don't really have a relationship with Tesla," he said, pivoting to Apple's in-car information and entertainment system. "I'd love Tesla to pick up CarPlay. We now have every major auto brand committing to use CarPlay."
Apple's cash pile grew to $193.5 billion at the end of March. Facing pressure from investors such as Carl Icahn, Apple increased its capital-return program through March 2017 by $70 billion. The company said it returned more than $112 billion to investors from August 2012 to March of this year.