Apple appears to be testing a pool of cars near San Francisco that are equipped with powerful camera rigs. A Claycord blog has published photos of a car that CBS affiliate KPIX 5 has confirmed is leased to Apple. The mysterious cars have been spotted a number of times over the past several months in and around San Francisco. A video, published on YouTube in September, also shows a complex camera rig mounted on the roof of a similar Dodge minivan in New York. Both of the cars near San Francisco and New York appear to be equipped with the same LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) camera system.
LIDAR has been used extensively by Google, Nokia, and others to map out imagery for Street View services. The technology is also used in some adaptive cruise control implementations to monitor distances between vehicles and automatically apply the brakes on a car. It’s possible that Apple is using LIDAR to create its own Street View rival, or at least testing that scenario. Apple’s car also includes the same wheel sensor that Navteq used on its Bing cars previously to create street imagery for Microsoft’s mapping service.
Apple has been gradually improving its mapping service since it controversially dropped Google Maps as the default maps app for iOS more than two years ago. Inaccurate listings, poor 3D imagery, and bad driving directions plagued the service initially, but things have improved. Apple Maps still lacks a rival to Google’s Street View, but if Apple is planning its own then it faces a daunting task to match Google’s comprehensive coverage. A test in New York and San Francisco isn't enough to map all of the world’s streets.
Google also uses LIDAR cameras to help power its self-driving cars. Google’s system is mounted on top of its fleet of cars, and the camera spins constantly to evaluate its surroundings. In the video published on YouTube, you can see a spinning camera system at the rear of the vehicle. While it’s possible Apple may be testing its own self-driving car, the company doesn’t have a permit to test them yet. As KPIX 5 points out, that doesn’t mean Apple couldn’t partner with an authorized car company to test them initially. With Apple refusing to comment on the cars, it looks like these curious vehicles will remain a mystery for now.