Apple’s Mystery Cars Make Waves in Silicon Valley

February 6, 2015 | Raj Srivastav

Apple’s Mystery Cars Make Waves in Silicon Valley
Apple’s Mystery Cars Make Waves in Silicon Valley

Gadget-laden cars roam the streets of Concord, California. Who put them there? What are they doing? No one claims responsibility. Amidst the murmurs and confusion, one name arises: “Apple.” What is Apple doing with these teched-out cars? As we all know, where Apple goes ears prick up in interest. They are a company that is constantly cloaked in secrecy—and this story has an extra air of mystery that makes it truly irresistible. This latest event has certainly whipped the tech world into a state of frenzied speculation—let’s delve into the mystery!

The facts:

  • Black and white vans covered in what appear to be cameras and LIDAR sensors are spotted in Concord, CA and Brooklyn, NY.

  • Investigation by CBS affiliate studio KPIX revealed that the vans in question are leased to Apple.

  • No comment from the vehicle operators or from Apple.

The equipment certainly looks like it could be a sensor array for an autonomous car. There are a few details that don’t quite conform to that story (though they certainly don’t refute it):

Number one: Apple hasn’t applied for or received the required license from the state of California to test autonomous vehicles. Google, Lexus, Audi, Mercedes-Benz all received testing licenses from the state last year. It is easy enough for Apple to apply for the license, should they be pursuing this technology, but they don’t have one now. That means that either they are testing the equipment in a non-autonomous environment, or they are testing it in partnership with a company that does have the required paperwork filed.

Number two: similar vans have also been seen in action in Brooklyn, where autonomous vehicles are not street legal. No autonomous vehicle testing would be taking place in New York unless strictly testing the sensors, but in that case, why go all the way to New York?

However, even if they aren’t testing autonomous functions, they may be interested in the performance of a sensor array in a real-world setting. If this does somehow represent an early Apple Driverless solution, then there are some big implications. Apple would be pretty far behind the competition in terms of time spent on the project, but there’s nothing stopping them from catching up.

Cars are a bit outside of Apple’s general purview in consumer electronics. They have worked on Car Play, though, so there’s at least some precedent for partnering with automakers. And since they go head-to-head with Google in so many other regards, I guess self-driving cars fits the bill.

In-car Apps

To take this speculation even further, I think it is important to think about the importance of in-car apps. If Google controls the autonomous car market, then they’ll have free reign over the app market for the third-party apps that run in that ecosystem.

Since apps are a big deal for consumers, and a money-maker for platform operators, I can certainly see why Apple would want to challenge Google on that front. Both companies are world leaders when it comes to platform-building, thanks to the success of iOS and Android. They’ve already competed head-to-head on car media-centers with Car Play and Android Auto.

In-Car Apps are going to explode once cars don’t need drivers. One of the big things holding them back right now is that they are hard to design; they need to be built in a way that will provide functionality, but won’t distract drivers. It’s a tough balancing act. Take out the driver, and suddenly you’re completely freed to do whatever you want.

With cars becoming more computerized, the dashboard is going to become a new battleground for apps, and it makes sense that Apple wants to stake a claim on it.

Alternative Explanations

As a final though, it is important to remember that we simply don’t know the nature of these cars. Perhaps the equipment is not for autonomous vehicle operation, but is instead a tool for improving the accuracy of Apple Maps. Since we don’t have any information on exactly what equipment the cars were outfitted with, this is another explanation that might fit the clues. Apple Maps certainly needs the attention, and physical mapping tools may be just the ticket.

And if not that, this could be something entirely new that we don’t know anything about. We really don’t know what Apple is working on. Even when we think we know what they are working on, they often surprise us: for instance, we knew they were working on a watch, but when they revealed the Apple Watch it was quite different than anyone had predicted. Ultimately Apple is pretty good at keeping things secret, considering the fact that they are possibly the biggest target of gossip and rumors—they still tend to surprise us every year.

In the shorter term, we look forward to the watch release in April. There will no doubt be a great deal of interaction between the watch and various connected devices…including cars, autonomous and otherwise. We’ll keep an eye on this Apple car business, but for now, it’s back into the office to crack open more Apple Watch app development adventures.

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