Mysterious minivans equipped with cameras that have been spotted driving around the San Francisco Bay Area are thought to be owned by Apple. Reports suggest they could be part of a new mapping project, but similar technology is used to power self-driving cars.
The latter seems like an unlikely option at this point — simply because Apple has not been issued a permit to test self-driving vehicles, according to AppleInsider. But there’s every possibility the minivans are being used to improve its own Maps service instead.
The vehicles look to be using a laser-based LiDAR sensor on an X-shaped frame fitted to the roof, which also appears to have multiple cameras on each of its corners. In addition, the frame houses two small antennas, and sensors hanging over its wheels that likely measures distance.
Technology like this can be used to build maps, and to take high-resolution photos that could form a service similar to Google’s Street View. It seems like Apple could be working on a competing service for Maps, then, given that at least one of the vehicles is owned by the Cupertino company, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
AppleInsider reports an identical white minivan with California license plates was spotted in Brooklyn, New York, last September.
Analyst Rob Enderle says the minivan has too many cameras — there appears to be around 12 — to be used just for mapping, and believes Apple is indeed testing self-driving technology. But Google’s more recent Street View cars are thought to carry around 15 5-megapixel sensors, so 12 may not be that excessive after all.
Street View is one of Google Maps’ greatest and most unique features; it’s what sets the service apart from many of its rivals. It would make sense if Apple offered its own Maps users a Street View alternative, then — but for now, we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up too much.
Building a service as good as Street View would take a long time, and you can be sure that after the problems it has already had with Maps, Apple wouldn’t launch a feature as big as this without first ensuring that it is near perfect.