Apple Car, is that you? Here's a clear look at Silicon Valley's mystery van

Exclusive: It's sporting some major changes, but Maps looks like the van's true purpose

Update August 14 11:59pm PT: The mystery of the vans may have come to a close.

A Twitter user by the name of @nopiece got in touch with us Sunday night to share a photo of what looks like the same Ford Transit - down to the Lidar, cameras, and housings - taken "a couple weeks ago." This van clearly has "Apple Maps" decaled on the passenger-side back panel, however, along with "maps.apple.com," just like Apple's Maps minivans.

Apple Car Apple Maps

Photo credit: @nopiece/Twitter

This van was spotted on the corner of Stanford Ave and Junipero Serra Blvd in Palo Alto, @nopiece said. Like the other locales we've seen the vans traverse, Palo Alto is in Santa Clara County, which Apple lists as one of its Maps vehicle driving locations. Apple's location list has remained fairly static, so driving in the county is nothing new for the fleet.

The vans appear then to be collecting data for Apple Maps, though it's a bit odd the two vehicles we've seen - including one just a day ago - have lacked any visible markings indicating they belonged to Apple, and certainly nothing this prominent.

Why would Apple identify at least one van and not others, especially since it's been so open about vehicles used in its Maps improvement efforts?

Perhaps the unmarked vans were testers the company wasn't ready to roll out in an official capacity, though we can't be sure.

We've asked Apple about the vans and will update if we hear anything. For now, though, it seems they're working to improve Apple's navigation service and not part of an effort to test self-driving car tech.

Original article below...

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.

Apple Car

No 'Apple Maps' markings on this 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.

Apple Car van

This is the van we spotted in April - see the changes?

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 vehicles aren't limited to one area and are trying their hand in different driving conditions.

Cruise control

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.

Apple Car

Like Tesla's fleet, 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.

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 and iPhone 7 Plus launch event next month.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

News Editor (US)

As the US News Editor, Michelle (Twitter, Google+) keeps her eye on all things tech with particular interest on phones, tablets and finding out who the people are behind the devices. Any phone that can survive a regular (accidental) drop has her vote for best handset. Michelle previously worked covering local news in the Bay Area and has been with TechRadar since July 2012.