For the last year or so, people have been spotting vans with giant cameras mounted on them — and all of these vans have been registered to Apple.
Since then, people have been speculating what it could mean. We have a couple of ideas.
More data for Apple Maps
In 2012, Apple Maps replaced Google Maps as the default mapping and navigation service on the iPhone — but as an unintended side effect, Apple Maps also became the butt of countless jokes. There were so many bugs and comical inaccuracies, some of which directed traffic into rivers and onto airport runways, that Apple CEO Tim Cook had to issue a public apology for Apple Maps. (Apple also fired the manager responsible for Maps in iOS 6, as well as longtime iOS chief Scott Forstall, in one big management shakeup.)
Since then, Apple has been working hard at constantly improving its Maps service. In September, Apple Maps finally added public transit directions — but in general, the service has gotten better and much more accurate.
But what’s next for Apple Maps? These Apple-registered vans might offer a hint.
It is totally possible that these camera-mounted vans are capturing photographic data for an Apple-made version of Street View. And since these vans have been driving during the day and nighttime, it’s possible Apple’s Street View competitor could let you see any given location during the day or night (since places tend to look different depending on the time of day.)
It’s also possible Apple won’t release a version of Street View to its Maps service. These vans might simply be capturing more information to improve the overall accuracy.
The first step towards a self-driving Apple Car
There’s also a possibility these camera-mounted vans are capturing important data that would be used by a future Apple Car.
Yes — if you haven’t heard by now, Apple is working on its own car. Tesla CEO Elon Musk calls Apple’s car project an “open secret.”
Apple is reportedly working on an electric car, but the car is also expected to have some self-driving features, if not be completely self-driving by the time it launches. If that’s the case, these Apple vans might be taking a page from Tesla, which is quickly working towards fully autonomous cars.
Some Tesla cars already have some self-driving features, which come in a package called “Autopilot.” These features include the ability to maintain or change lanes, parallel park, pull out of the garage, and avoid obstacles — all by itself.
But the secret sauce to Tesla’s Autopilot system is actually an intelligence network. According to Musk, Tesla cars driving on the road with Autopilot deliver all that data to Tesla’s intelligence network, which then uses that data to improve the driving algorithm, which affects how car should react in certain areas or situations. So, data from every single car informs the rest of the fleet.
Google, Audi, and Mercedes are all developing similar technologies that can learn information about the road as well as how drivers behave in certain situations, and share that data with every single car touched by the network. In that sense, it’s possible these Apple-registered vans are driving all over the country, all day and night, to capture information that would eventually be used by a self-driving Apple Car.
Of course, all of this is speculation. There are countless possibilities as to what an Apple-registered van adorned with cameras could mean. But improving Apple Maps, and laying the foundation for the Apple Car, are our best bets.
Tech Insider reached out to Apple for comment, we’ll update the story if they get back to us.