Those Apple vans are collecting next-gen Maps data and Street View storefronts

BY Evan Selleck

Published 29 May 2015

image Apple mysterious van

At the early party of 2015, rumors began swirling that Apple was out there in the wild testing self-driving mini vans. Or, simply using vehicles to gather more information for their own Maps app.

Now, according to a new report recently published by 9to5Mac, the ongoing mystery of what these vans are doing out there on the roads has been solved. The report indicates that Apple is building up its mapping data, and using the vans to go around and take as many photos as it possibly can of storefronts and other areas, as well as map the areas where they are visiting. This is meant to lessen the reliance that Apple has on other companies, including TomTom for the mapping data, and even Yelp! for the images of businesses. Apple is also said to be building up a 3D Street View of its own.

The report goes in-depth into what the vans are actually meant to be accomplishing, outright denying that these vehicles have anything to do with Apple’s testing of a self-driving car. Indeed, these vans, which have typically been seen in white, black or beige, are solely on the road to bolster Apple’s map-driven initiative, which it aims to build up its own base maps information. According to the report, this would mean that, by 2017, Apple would be able to sever the majority of its ties to other companies that it has had to rely on to get Maps off the ground in the first place. Indeed, TomTom, a service that Apple uses for its Maps app, recently confirmed that its own contracts had been renewed with Apple just recently, but when those contracts might end was unknown at the time.

Unfortunately, an unnamed source suggests that Apple’s deadline in this area might not pan out, and Apple could have to wait until 2018 to actually announce this new Maps.

As noted in the original report, all of this means many different things, especially for Apple and its goal to do just about everything on its own, but it also means a better experience for the end user. If Apple can remove as many middlemen as possible in the Maps experience, then it also means that Apple can directly control the Maps environment, its updates, and the core user experience.

Going further with the details of the vans, the report suggests that the vehicles are collecting Street View data as they roam around the roads. According to the unnamed sources, Apple does not believe that the Street View interfaces launched by Google are all that intuitive for those looking at them, and therefore the goal is to make something better. Apple is currently exploring new ways of displaying the Street View information it is collecting, but what that might look like in the finished product is not known.

Apple Maps Yelp images

On top of that, Google is also taking pictures of storefronts on commercial roads, which is reportedly part of a project known as “Gardar.” Right now, within the Maps app, storefront images are populated fro the Yelp! app, but it would appear that Apple wants to remove its reliance on this service as well, and collect the data and images itself. This means that the images that are displayed in some future version of Maps will not have images showcased that were taken by reviewers of the establishment, but instead by Apple directly.

That project will take time, though, and Apple is reportedly planning a gradual rollout over the next several months, if not an entire year or longer. The report suggests that Apple could divulge some of this information with the announcement, or release, of iOS 9, but it’s still a speculation at this point.

Apple seems to be making its Maps app a major focus moving forward, with reports surfacing recently that outline new additions, including a new Transit Maps feature (which will be rolled out only in select cities to start), and even a new Augmented Reality feature that could make learning more about businesses or interesting places around the user more worthwhile.

Based on what we’ve heard about Maps so far, are you looking forward to the future of the service?

[via 9to5Mac]