Apple testing mysterious camera-equipped vehicles in the Bay Area

Posted:
in General Discussion edited July 2015
A number of minivans with what appears to be camera equipment and a LiDAR sensor mounted to the roof that have appeared around California in recent weeks could be part of a new Apple project, as at least one of the vehicles is registered to the iPhone maker.


One of the vans, as photographed by Claycord.


The minivans sport an X-shaped frame mounted to their luggage racks, with dark recesses that likely house cameras at each corner. The California Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed to San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX that a blue Dodge Caravan spotted with the equipment was leased to Apple.

Along with the cameras, a pair of spinning cylindrical devices fitted to the front and rear look to be LiDAR sensors. LiDAR is a laser-based technology used to make high-resolution maps, and also forms an integral part of the sensing systems on self-driving vehicles, including those developed by Google.

Analyst Rob Enderle told KPIX that he believes the vehicles are in fact self-driving cars, but that is an unlikely possibility given that Apple has not been issued a testing permit for those purposes. It is more likely that Apple is preparing to begin a mapping program similar to Google's Street View data collection initiative.



Two small disc-shaped antennas are also fitted to the roof, as well as a sensor hanging over the rear wheel that could be used to more accurately measure movement as indicated by the rotation of the wheel. An almost identical white van with California license plates was spotted last September in Brooklyn.

Enderle noted that the number of cameras on the minivan --?there appears to be at least 12 --?seems to be a high number for a mapping vehicle, but Google's latest-generation Street View cars use a ring of 15 5-megapixel CMOS sensors. Aside from the physical configuration, the equipment on the Apple-registered van appears to be broadly similar to the technology fitted to a Street View car.

Apple is known to have ambitious plans for its mapping service, and collecting street-level data is one of the only ways to ensure quality. Google's Street View program is widely cited by industry experts as a primary driver of Google Maps's accuracy.

Thanks to AppleInsider reader Jason for the tip.

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 98

    I predict five to fifteen new troll accounts whose only posts regard Google “doing it first” regarding street-level photography.

     

    Then again, this is probably just Apple’s self-driving car, set to go to market in Fall 2016, completely obliterating Google’s timeframe. :p

  • Reply 2 of 98
    nasseraenasserae Posts: 3,158member
    I really hope they are adding street views. The Maps Flyover feature is useless. They should have invested in street view instead.
  • Reply 3 of 98
    Originally Posted by NasserAE View Post

    I really hope they are adding street views. The Maps Flyover feature is useless. They should have invested in street view instead.



    Thing is, this’ll probably result in an enhanced Flyover. Since planes can’t get low enough to, well, get between buildings and see the street, they’ll likely composite these images into Flyover to let you zoom in further.

  • Reply 4 of 98
    This is wild. I was behind one of these on my way to work this morning. Didn't know what it was
    [IMG]http://forums.appleinsider.com/content/type/61/id/55052/width/200/height/400[/IMG]
  • Reply 5 of 98
    This article had some credibility until they added the 'interview' with Rob Enderle. He has got to be one of the most clueless people when it comes to Apple and their products.
  • Reply 6 of 98

    Yep, ?View is in progress.

  • Reply 7 of 98

    Oh...I saw one of these.  I work in Sunnyvale, and log a lot of miles in the area.  I naturally thought it was a google car, but having seen hundreds and hundreds of Google cars around here, it looked completely different, which is why it caught my attention.  It had the set up shown for the minivan.  I didn't look for any other specifics, but will keep my eyes open now.  

  • Reply 8 of 98
    arlorarlor Posts: 509member

    Apple uses...minivans. I'm still trying to process that.

  • Reply 9 of 98
    I've been wanting this for some time so I'm not surprised that it's happening, but rather why it took so long to happen. I think dual LiDAR, along with cameras placed toward the front and back end sides, instead of a close ring in the center, could lead to some interesting results. One feature I've been wanting to see is the removal of moving objects, like people, from the street level views. Sure, it was funny to see these gems found in Street View when people were caught on camera doing funny stuff, but it's passé and not useful. I hope Apple's setup has a post-processing method of removing people, cars and other objects in way of the facades so we can get a FlyOver-like view at street level.

    Analyst Rob Enderle told KPIX that he believes the vehicles are in fact self-driving cars, but that is an unlikely possibility given that Apple has not been issued a testing permit for those purposes.

    […]

    Enderle noted that the number of cameras on the minivan --?there appears to be at least 12 --?seems to be a high number for a mapping vehicle, but Google's latest-generation Street View cars use a ring of 15 5-megapixel CMOS sensors. Aside from the physical configuration, the equipment on the Apple-registered van appears to be broadly similar to the technology fitted to a Street View car.

    Yet, people will still ask his fucking opinion about this shit the next time. WHY?!?!?!?!?!
    Thing is, this’ll probably result in an enhanced Flyover. Since planes can’t get low enough to, well, get between buildings and see the street, they’ll likely composite these images into Flyover to let you zoom in further.

    I don't care what they call it, but a street-level view can be very useful for scoping locations.
  • Reply 10 of 98
    arlor wrote: »
    Apple uses...minivans. I'm still trying to process that.

    Inexpensive, lots of cargo space, wide and long wheel bases, high roof, built-in roof rack mounts, and fairly smooth ride. Seems exceptionally practical to me.

    edit: And a fairly consistent flat roof over a large area for the 4 corners of the camera mounts.
  • Reply 11 of 98
    nagrommenagromme Posts: 2,834member
    Street View is awful. You jump from node to blurry, lens-flared, slow-loading node in the most tedious way possible. You think you'll be able to read street-level signs, but the one you want is rarely readable.

    If Apple's Flyover, with it's fast, smooth-scrolling 3D, no constant re-loading of the same street, and no special "mode" you must enter, can be brought a bit lower down to the street, now that would be the best of both worlds! It's already more useful than Street View--in the limited number of cities (like mine!) that have it.

    And no lens flares hiding the signs!
  • Reply 12 of 98
    Hope it's true. Can't wait for street views in Apple maps. Then I will have no more use for any google "products"
  • Reply 13 of 98
    nagromme wrote: »
    Street View is awful. You jump from node to blurry, lens-flared, slow-loading node in the most tedious way possible. You think you'll be able to read street-level signs, but the one you want is rarely readable.

    If Apple's Flyover, with it's fast, smooth-scrolling 3D, no constant re-loading of the same street, and no special "mode" you must enter, can be brought a bit lower down to the street, now that would be the best of both worlds! It's already more useful than Street View--in the limited number of cities (like mine!) that have it.

    And no lens flares hiding the signs!

    What signs can you read with FlyOver from street level? The one that says HOLLYWOOD on the side of a hill?

    I don't think anyone would disagree with you on way you jump from frame to frame with Street View, but I can't see how you can say it's less useful than FlyOver.
  • Reply 14 of 98
    Didn't see that one coming.
  • Reply 15 of 98
    elijahgelijahg Posts: 1,007member
    A street-level "flyover" would be great, and make Google's effort look tacky by comparison. However, they have one hell of a long way to go if they want to catch up to Google, simply in the number of miles they need to travel with their LiDAR cars. I guess this is in the testing stage at the moment.

    It does make sense though, with enough photos taken, you'd be able to smoothly "fly" past the houses rather than the jumps you make with Google's version.
  • Reply 16 of 98
    misamisa Posts: 827member
    pokerbear wrote: »
    Oh...I saw one of these.  I work in Sunnyvale, and log a lot of miles in the area.  I naturally thought it was a google car, but having seen hundreds and hundreds of Google cars around here, it looked completely different, which is why it caught my attention.  It had the set up shown for the minivan.  I didn't look for any other specifics, but will keep my eyes open now.  

    I live outside the US, I've never seen a single Google car. According to Street-View, one comes by every 3 years.

    There's two likely scenarios:
    1) Enhanced mapping - Mainly in the same category as Google street View. It would augment whatever data sources they already use.
    2) Laser scanning - This is used for two things, but primarily to gather street metrics to establish the "baseline" profile of what the street is supposed to look like in 3D, and then when automated cars use the data, use the delta between the baseline to determine if something is there (eg pedestrians, construction equipment, etc.) It can also be used to model buildings, structures, and other pertinent data that would not be available to a stand-alone GPS or Camera matrix.

    Given Apple's penchant to do things in secret, this might be round 1 of prototyping a mapping service, or something to later interface with CarPlay.
  • Reply 17 of 98

    Google can't claim that they did it first.  These guys have been on the road since the late 80s and have been doing LiDAR since 2007.  They have been using Apple CPU's as their collection computers for over 25 years.  They mainly doing network collection for State and Municipal DOTs across the country.  Recently added an autonomous vehicle to their fleet for doing airports. 

     

    mandli.com

     

    They are widely consider to be one of the best terrestrial 3D LiDAR collection companies in the industry with a dozen States already collected including Hawaii and Alaska.

  • Reply 18 of 98
    15 cameras vs 12 cameras? Looks like Apple loses ("looses" in trollspeak) the specs race again. /s
  • Reply 19 of 98
    [quote name="Geospatial" url="/t/184636/apple-testing-mysterious-camera-equipped-vehicles-in-the-bay-area#post_2670910"]They have been using Apple CPU's as their collection computers for over 25 years.[/QUOTE]

    :???:
  • Reply 20 of 98
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 4,701member

    I'm a big fan of Apple Maps.  It's a much smoother interface than what GoogleMaps offers.  A streetview option is the next logical choice.  I don't use StreetView often as I care more about getting to the location, than I do wondering how the building looks like from ground level.  However, I have more trust in Apple getting a more polished product out the door initially than what Google did.  

     

    The MapsGate problem back in the day was so overblown and just gave the trolls and iHaters an opportunity to lambast Apple, I'll bet Apple is gonna give them very little - if any  opportunities to do that.

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