A second mysterious van that could be part of an Apple Car project has been spotted by TechRadar.
After an initial van sighting in April, an identical Ford Transit, inconspicuous save for the large Lidar and camera rig on its roof (can’t miss that), drove by while we were visiting Saratoga, Calif. on Saturday. Saratoga is a small residential town that borders Cupertino, home to Apple’s main campus.
While we can’t say for sure either van belongs to Apple, the similarity between the two is undeniable. There are, however, some notable changes to what’s on top of the first and second van.
Like the van we saw driving around a cluster of Apple office buildings almost four months ago, this van is white and has no markings indicating it’s owned by the iPhone maker.
Look up though and you notice the rooftop rig has undergone a major transformation. Its framework is now a solid black rectangle, rather than individual prongs sticking out from a central unit as seen on the first van.
Spinning Lidar on the four corners appear the same, but the camera housings are different; they’re white, not black as we saw before, and have a rounder shape. There are two cameras on the sides, and one on the front and back.
The large box in the center of the rig, which likely houses more sensors, is also white, and it’s rounder and more compact than the black one we saw atop the first van.
Finally, there’s a white disk positioned behind the central casing, which was missing from the earlier van. It looks to be a GPS sensor, and closely resembles a GPS antenna seen on the back of a Tesla Model S during a driverless technology press event in late 2015.
As you may have noticed, someone is in the driver seat, hands on the wheel – that’s been the case both times we’ve seen the vans. Just as they were before, the driver appeared to be in total control of the vehicle as it made its way down the street. There’s also someone in the passenger seat, looking down.
The updated van looks to match one spotted by Business Insider traveling on the Golden Gate Bridge in late June, a sign the vehicle’s not limited to one area and is trying its hand in different driving conditions.
Of course, it’s possible the vans belong to another company altogether, but circumstances suggest the vehicles are cruising the streets for Apple.
Rumors have swirled for ages that the firm is working on a car of its own, and the thrice-spotted van may be part of its efforts to build one for consumers.
Project Titan, the car undertaking’s supposed codename, would be Apple’s most ambitious foray into the automotive space. A number of hires – including the rehire of Apple alum Bob Mansfield and plenty of folks from Tesla – suggest the car, thought to be an electric vehicle, is alive and well.
Like Teslas, the Apple Car will almost certainly flex some self-driving muscle, though not be fully autonomous.
The camera- and Lidar-laden vans could be testing self-driving components for a future Apple Car, which The Information reports won’t hit the streets until 2021. That’s plenty of time for Apple to perfect whatever auto-pilot systems it’s working on.
Apple Car signs
Another theory is that the van is part of a push to revamp Apple Maps. The much-harangued Maps is vastly improved since a beginning that "embarrassed" Apple execs, but still trail Google Maps. The vans may be gathering data to create detailed 3D views for the navigation service, though we’re not sold on that idea.
Why? Because Apple already has Maps vans, ones that are clearly marked and openly discussed by the company.
What’s more, the white vans are ferrying set-ups similar to what’s found on other self-driving cars, such as Google’s, another clue that’s their charge.
Unfortunately, we likely won’t hear official word from Apple on any car project until it’s ready to release one. If Apple Maps is the vans’ true calling, then we could learn more about those updates at Apple’s iPhone 7 launch event next month.
We’ve asked Apple if it owns the vans and what they’re for being used for – besides joyriding – and will update this story if we hear anything.