SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — In a week that saw Apple Inc. become the first company to exceed a $700 billion valuation, the rumor-hungry technology media were rife with reports — beginning with a Feb. 3 KPIX 5 report of an Apple-leased, possibly autonomous van — that the Cupertino maker of iPhones and Mac computers is planning to build a line of automobiles.

Articles published Friday in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times added to earlier reports from Apple-focused online publications which suggest the secretive technology giant is on something of a hiring spree, specifically recruiting engineers and designers from car-makers that include Silicon Valley’s Tesla Motors.

Apple has already demonstrated interest in the automotive sector. Last year it introduced a system it calls CarPlay which allows iPhones and iPads to communicate with dashboard displays on higher-end cars from numerous manufacturers including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Chrysler, Toyota and others.

But the latest rumors suggest that Apple is making a major investment in cars, perhaps including a new line of electric or self-driving vehicles.

Friday’s Financial Times report (subscription required) claimed that Apple has hired a former Mercedes-Benz executive to work at a “top-secret” research lab. Bryan Chaffin, reporting for the Mac Observer website, quickly identified that executive as Johann Jungwirth, the former president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development.

The Wall Street Journal reported (subscription required) that Apple’s secret car initiative, code-name “Titan” is being led by a former Ford Motor Co. engineer named Steve Zadesky who works at Apple. The Journal also confirmed Jungwirth as one of the new project’s hires.

The rumored project is already staffed by “hundreds” of employees and is likely to expand to as many as 1,000, the Journal reported.

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