Strangely equipped minivans -- at least one of which is registered to Apple -- have recently been spotted driving around parts of California, fueling speculation the tech giant might be working on new mapping or self-driving car
On Monday, Claycord, a news Web site that covers several communities in the San Francisco Bay area, posted several photos of one "mystery van" and asked readers to weigh in on what they thought it was. "When asked about what they are doing, the person sitting in the vehicle would never give an answer," according to Claycord.
A number of readers confirmed they had seen similar vehicles driving around other areas of California. San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX talked to technology analyst Rob Enderle who said he thought the large number of cameras affixed to a rooftop frame led him to believe the van was more likely an autonomous test vehicle and not a street-mapping vehicle.
No Driverless Car Permits for Apple
According to the KPIX report, California's Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed that a dark Dodge minivan seen driving around the town of Concord was registered as being leased to Apple. The report added that Apple was not one of the half-dozen companies issued testing permits for driverless cars.
As of late last October, California had issued Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permits to Bosch, Delphi Automotive, Google, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Tesla Motors and Volkswagen Group of America. The state is continuing to work on regulations for post-testing deployment of self-driving cars, and held its most recent public workshop on January 27.
Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told KPIX that Apple's lack of a permit didn't mean it wasn't involved in testing a driverless car. "It can be a partnership," he said. "You know, they have partnerships with a variety of the carmakers."
Apple's Answer to Street View?
However, AppleInsider said it's more likely the mystery vans are using cameras and what appear to be LiDAR (a laser-based technology similar to radar) sensors as part of an effort to improve Apple's mapping data. AppleInsider credited a reader for sending a tip about the vehicles to the site.
"Apple is known to have ambitious plans for its mapping service, and collecting street-level data is one of the only ways to ensure quality," the AppleInsider report noted.
Further bolstering that possibility, the article added, is that "the equipment on the Apple-registered van appears to be broadly similar to the technology fitted to a Street View car."
First launched by Google in the U.S. in 2007, Street View uses vehicles equipped with an assortment of cameras, sensors and other devices to gather real-world images of locations around the globe. It combines those images with geodata to generate 360-degree panoramic and 3D views of landscapes across North America, South America and Europe, and is continually expanding those views to other regions in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.