Apple's mystery vans are all about improving Apple Maps

Apple mapping car
An Apple minivan in action.

Remember those mystery Apple vans tootling around the States a few months ago? No one was quite sure what they were up to, but it's now become clear that they're part of Apple's continued push to get its own mapping service up to scratch.

Thanks to some diligent digging by 9to5Mac we know that these camera-equipped automobiles are capturing 3D street view imagery, stills of storefronts, and more besides. The general idea is that Apple gradually reduces its reliance on third-party providers.

As 9to5Mac explains, Apple wants its own in-house maps data by 2018. That means collecting its own points of reference at the lowest levels and would eventually result in more control for Apple over the quality of its Maps app.

Street with a view

Since Apple Maps launched in 2012 it's been lagging behind Google Maps in terms of scope and accuracy. Google Maps, meanwhile, is adding new features all the time, and Apple doesn't want to fall further behind.

One of the features Apple's unmarked fleet of vans is collecting data for is a 3D Flyover mode for individual streets. Together with high-quality still images for businesses and landmarks, Apple is hoping to outdo Google Street View.

We should hear more about Maps and iOS 9 at WWDC from 8 June - apparently public transport timetable integration is on the way as well as a number of other new features. We will of course keep you updated as next week's event unfolds.

David Nield
Freelance Contributor

Dave is a freelance tech journalist who has been writing about gadgets, apps and the web for more than two decades. Based out of Stockport, England, on TechRadar you'll find him covering news, features and reviews, particularly for phones, tablets and wearables. Working to ensure our breaking news coverage is the best in the business over weekends, David also has bylines at Gizmodo, T3, PopSci and a few other places besides, as well as being many years editing the likes of PC Explorer and The Hardware Handbook.