Much of the attention paid to products that Apple may be developing has focused on the so-called iWatch, an Apple-designed television and, of course, the new iPhone.

But in an earnings call on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasized just how crucial it is for Apple to build something for the car, offering perhaps a clue to a project the company is working on.

"Having something in the automobile is very, very important," Cook said in response to a question from an analyst. "It's something that people want, and I think that Apple can do this in a unique way and better than anyone else. So it's a key focus for us."

At its annual developer's conference last month, Apple announced iOS in the Car, a feature in its forthcoming mobile operating system that will closely integrate iTunes, iMessage, Maps and Siri in cars from a dozen manufacturers beginning next year.

But a recent patent filing shows that Apple may be focusing on something much bigger than just the marriage of your iPhone and your car: building the car dashboard of the future.

Earlier this month, Apple Insider reported that the company had been granted a patent for "a touchscreen-based telematics system," basically a customizable car dashboard and console. The system features a touch screen that could change in feel, so the driver could make adjustments to it without looking away from the road.

In the design, cameras in the interior of the car pick up the position of the driver's hand and project that image onto the windshield, effectively showing the driver what he or she is doing.

The patent filing also reveals that the in-car system would be equipped with sensors that allow the driver to, for example, increase the temperature using a hand gesture.

The filing, which Apple Insider notes is a continuation of previous patents Apple acquired, includes descriptions of heads-up displays, customizable knobs and switches, and a screen that can be operated by a "laser pointer or like device."

The filing describes the patent as "A revolutionary form of dashboard or instrument panel results which is stylistically attractive, lower in cost, customizable by the user, programmable in both the tactile and visual sense, and with the potential of enhancing interior safety and vehicle operation."

Car manufacturers have responded to the proliferation of smartphones, and the safety risks of distracted driving, by selling cars with systems that try to integrate technology more safely.

But Apple has shown that one of its biggest strengths is designing beautiful, intuitive hardware. Rather than just sending data from an iPhone to a dashboard designed by a car manufacturer, or to a system designed by Blackberry, it would make sense that Apple would build its own from the ground up. After all, Cook did say that when it comes to having something in the car, "Apple can do this in a unique way and better than anyone else."

"I think it's a natural extension from the phone to go into the car, just like it is for the TV and for the watch," said Brian Colello, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar. "Apple's expertise is a simple, sleek user interface. Siri, Maps -- all of that lends itself well for an in-vehicle dashboard."

While Colello emphasized that it's not clear how Apple would make money from such a system, "It could be a nice area of innovation."

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