Mysterious vans owned by Apple have been popping up in cities across the US, and now we may finally know why. 9to5Mac reports that Apple is using the vans to collect mapping data for a much-needed overhaul to Apple Maps. The project is apparently meant to give Apple three things: high-quality mapping data, photos of storefronts, and 3D imagery for its own take on Street View. There appears to be no connection between this project and Apple's supposed self-driving car initiative.
Apple wants to start using its own mapping data
Recording its own mapping data may be the biggest element of this project for Apple. Right now, Apple Maps is based on mapping data from a collection of outside sources, the combination of which, according to 9to5Mac, leads to the service's infamous mistakes. If Apple can use these vans to record thorough and up-to-date mapping data, it could go a long way toward getting its service closer to the quality of rivals like Google Maps. Of course, Apple's rivals have years of experience on it, so it's not clear how robust this data might be when it finally gets put to use. The report states that Apple wants to shift over to it beginning in 2017, but it already looks like that date could be pushed back.
Along the way, the vans are also picking up imagery and 3D data. The imagery is the simple part: Apple is reported to be collecting images of businesses to use when displaying information about those locations in its app. It currently relies on Yelp for that data. Apple apparently does't plan on using this imagery to also create a direct clone of Street View, however. Instead, 9to5Mac reports that Apple plans to create a street-level version of its 3D city maps. It's not stated how people would navigate that map — or if it would really be more useful that Street View — but Apple reportedly thinks it's a better solution than what Google offers.
It's likely that we won't hear anything about this from Apple for some time. It doesn't typically talk about future projects, though it's possible that it'll use this data as it comes in to improve Maps piecemeal.