With both Google and Uber investigating self-driving cars, it’s no surprise that people’s imaginations would leap on the news that Apple’s been driving minivans bearing complicated equipment rigs around Northern California. But if you’re holding out hope for an autonomous iCar, keep waiting.
There’s probably a much simpler answer for these cars. If there’s anything Apple has taken plenty of flack for in recent years, it’s the unreliability of its mapping information. The company replaced Google Maps with its in-house app in 2012’s iOS 6, and the backlash was immediate and vitriolic. Entire blogs have been devoted to issues like businesses and landmarks that don’t appear in the right places, gaps in satellite imagery, and even, infamously, a farm misidentified as an airport. Since then, the company has worked hard to beef up its geographical data, and while it’s definitely improved, it still may not be up to par with its Google-based competitor.
So it’s likely that the cars are being used to collect ground-level mapping data to build out Apple’s own databases, which has been primarily based on information from third-party mapping services and open-source projects. Apple could even be taking images similar to Google’s Street View feature, a capability that the company’s mapping app lost when it shifted away from Google. Some have speculated that the cars’ rigs include LiDAR and cameras, which could help support the mapping theory.
Apple tends not to invest in pie-in-the-sky projects the same way Google does, and there’s been no indication whatsoever that the company has any interest in self-driving cars. It doesn’t mesh at all with Apple’s existing business or goals, and the company’s not known for investing in areas just because other people have. With Apple’s recent push into the auto space with its CarPlay touchscreen interface, it’s far more believable it simply wants to provide better mapping and directions to its existing users.