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Despite little information, Apple and Google lead at German auto show

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Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

(Read caption) German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to BMW CFO Friedrich Eichinger in front of a BMW 225xe car as she makes an opening tour of the Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt on Thursday. Other officials pictured are President of the German Automotive Industry Association Matthias Wissmann and Hesse's state Premier Volker Bouffier.

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Apple and Google have yet to announce any plans of mass-producing self-driving cars, but that hasn’t stopped them from stealing the show among international automakers. 

“The mere knowledge that Apple has a team of several hundred people working on car designs changed the conversation this week at the Frankfurt International Motor Show,” wrote The New York Times. “Along with Google, Apple has focused the minds of auto executives on the challenge posed by new technologies that have the potential to disrupt traditional auto industry hierarchies.” 

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While buzz at the conference is usually centered on horsepower and torque, this year smart cars are all the rage, reports the Times.

Google has been making headlines since testing its autonomous cars in public. A particular highlight came this summer as it was involved in an accident with another car in Mountain View, California, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

And for the past year, Apple has been hiring engineers left and right for its secret electric car project, known only as Titan, according to the Monitor. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that the company wouldn’t begin production until 2020.

But a new report from The Guardian on Friday shows that Apple executives met with officials from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles last month, in a move “to review [the] DMV’s autonomous vehicle regulations.”

While DMV officials declined to elaborate beyond that statement, the meeting suggests that the vehicle “is almost ready for public view,” wrote the newspaper.

Given all the secrecy, one might ask: What’s all the fuss about? For automakers, it’s mostly about money, according to the Times.

While John Krafcik, who heads up Google’s self-driving car program, has denied that the company has plans of becoming a car manufacturer, concerns continue to swirl:

As cars increasingly become rolling software platforms, Apple and Google have depths of tech expertise that the carmakers would have trouble duplicating. And those Silicon Valley companies have financial resources that dwarf those of even behemoth companies like Daimler and Volkswagen …

The main risk for carmakers is probably not so much that an Apple car would destroy Mercedes-Benz or BMW the way the iPhone gutted Nokia, the Finnish company that was once the world’s largest maker of mobile phones. Rather, the risk is that Apple and Google would turn the carmakers into mere hardware makers — and hog the profit.