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It’s no secret that Apple’s stab at creating a map and navigation app to rival the one made by Google was something of a flop. Interestingly, a bunch of dark minivans kitted out with what looks like LiDAR sensors and camera recesses have been spotted driving all over California – and it’s been confirmed by the California DMV that they’ve been leased to Apple. Is Apple trying to revamp its mapping powers – or is this something else?

The news comes by way of KPIX in San Francisco, which speculates that the vans are Apple’s attempt at rivalling Google in a different area – the driverless car. The report cites “technology analyst Rob Enderle,” who says that the camera configuration on the vans are too sophisticated to simply be for mapping efforts:

“Too many cameras,” he explains as his rationale for believing this is Apple’s attempt at an autonomous car. “It has cameras that are angled down at all four corners of the vehicle.”

He continues, explaining how and why Apple may be involved in a driverless car project despite the fact that it doesn’t have the necessary permits for testing an autonomous vehicle:

“It can be a partnership. You know, they have partnerships with a variety of carmakers. Just because they’re leasing the car doesn’t necessarily mean it’s their project.”

A post on AppleInsider, however, makes the case that the vans are related to mapping, not robot-driving:

“Aside from the physical configuration, the equipment on the Apple-registered van appears to be broadly similar to the technology fitted to a [Google] Street View car.”

In either case, it’s clear that Apple is doing something with a fleet of dark, camera-equipped vans on the streets of California. It seems less than likely that Apple would go after the driverless car project, though it should be noted that Uber just this week made bold moves to start its own autonomous vehicle initiative, having hired 50 robot scientists and partnering with Carnegie Mellon University.

However, Uber’s business relies on cars safely ferrying people from one place to another. Google’s business relies on learning as much as possible about customers to sell targeted advertising. An autonomous taxi service makes sense for both of those companies. But Apple? How could Apple gain by developing a driverless car? Apple sells gadgets and devices, and develops apps and software to support that hardware. A driverless car doesn’t fit into that scheme – but a revised and revamped mapping and navigation app does.

[Sources: KPIX, AppleInsider, Image via Claycord]

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