Apple continues to expand its reach. It started out as a business dedicated to personal computers, and quickly became the industry leader in both music and smartphones. So what's next on the Cupertino-based company's radar?

According to Apple Insider, Apple might soon pursue the automotive industry, seeing as they've been granted a US patent for "Programmable tactile touch screen displays and man-machine interfaces for improved vehicle instrumentation and telematics."

Although touchscreen interfaces are quickly becoming commonplace in cars, they still pose considerable safety risks. Similar to texting while driving, touchscreens encourage drivers to take their eyes off the road as they fumble to control the in-car temperature, as well as the radio volume.

To combat this issue, Apple's patent outlines a touchscreen with built-in tactile elements. For example, a transparent knob on the display can be used to control the windshield wipers while the car is in motion, but instead be used to surf the internet while the vehicle is stopped. Another nifty feature is that the underlying screen can illuminate all of the important dials when needed, yet fade away when not in use. In essence, the purpose of the embedded knobs, sliders and switches is to make touchscreens less reliant on sight alone. 

Although the touchscreen is the most compelling component of the Apple patent, there are several other technologies that should not go overlooked. The patent also outlines a heads-up-display (HUD) that is embedded in the armrest, a camera that tracks the driver's head motion, and screens that can be controlled using just a laser pointer.

Early reports suggest that the patent might also be used in conjunction with the highly anticipated "iOS in the Car"; an upcoming feature that promises hands-free control of your iPhone through the in-car receiver.

Regardless of the project's outcome, it will be interesting to see how Apple handles the unfamiliar automotive market. However, if their track record is any indication, then the eventual "iCar" will be an instant success.

Images via retrevo and USPTO