Apple has been operating sensor-hatted vans for quite a while now, mostly, they say (and seen on signs on the vans) to capture data for Apple Maps. This one, though, spotted by Tech Radar, is a little different: different van, different sensor array. So what’s it doing?
First, let’s just look at how it’s different than the Apple Maps vans we’ve seen before:
As you can see, Apple tends to use Dodge Caravans for these, and they have a pretty standardized and (relatively) streamlined rig for these mapping vans, including cameras at each corner and a pair of LIDAR units at front and rear, along with a wheel-mounted sensor and antenna.
You can see the other van here, in this tweet from Tech Radar:
First, it’s a Ford Transit van, which doesn’t really tell us much, but it does suggest this isn’t their standard mapping van. Looking at the sensor array, we can see that there’s now four LIDAR units, one mounted at each corner, and a different camera array.
So here’s the question: is this just another mapping van, or is all this hardware being used to develop autonomous driving tech for a still-hypothetical upcoming Apple car? The corner position of the LIDAR units would be consistent with the sort of 360° view you’s want those units to have to assist in driving, for example, and it’s hard to see how that change could improve LIDAR’s use in mapping, where they’re great at detecting elevation changes and mapping 3D structures like buildings.
Alternately, there’s this devious idea: the whole Apple Maps thing has been a cover all along! I mean, let’s be honest– have we actually seen anything in Apple Maps that’s using all this new more “granular” data that they say they’re getting from this vehicle fleet?
There’s a fair amount of overlap between mobile mapping equipment and autonomous driving equipment. Maybe these Apple Maps vehicles we’ve been seeing have been autonomous system trainers all along, and this new Transit-based setup is just the next step there?
Am I getting TOO CLOSE TO THE TRUTH?
Honestly, we have no idea. Tech Radar suggesting that this is an autonomous testbed is pure speculation, as is all of this. Still, it’s sort of fun to guess, so why not? As long as, you know, it’s clear we’re just guessing.