Apple's mystery van driving around San Fran? Don't bet on a self-driving car

Justin Hyde
·Managing Editor

Being good neighbors means looking out when something suspicious pops up in your neighborhood. That's how a local San Franciso blog came to this photo of a black Dodge Grand Caravan with an odd array of equipment cruising the neighborhood streets. Further checks revealed the owner of the van was none other than Apple — and the speculation began immediately that Apple was working on its own self-driving car technology to rival Google.

It's a nifty idea, and entirely possible that Apple would spend some of its Croesus-level cash on such a gadget. But given what we know about self-driving technology, this Mystery Machine isn't going without a driver any time soon.

Start with the gadgets on the roof. The Apple van has four cameras and two spinning cylinders that are likely laser-ranging systems. Those lasers are the same kind Google and other automakers use in their self-driving cars to "see" the road, street signs and other obstacles — but those vehicles typically only need one laser and camera setup to navigate, not multiple copies. You can see a similar array on this van caught by a passer-by in Brooklyn last September:

Secondly, and how do I put this politely — the Grand Caravan is old. Ancient, by automotive standards; the current version launched in 2008 is ending production within a few months to make way for a revamped model. If Apple wanted to build a self-driving car system that bolts onto older vehicles, this would be one way to go, but most automakers want newer models with better computer and networking power built in. Googe used Toyota Priuses as its test bed; the only advantage the Grand Caravan would have would be that Chrysler sells them at bargain prices in bulk.

And that leads to the final deduction; Apple is more likely out trying to build its own version of Google Maps than doing something funky with robotic cars. Google's Street View cars needed space inside to hold the data logging equipment for the detailed imagery it was gathering; a Grand Caravan could do that quite well. Apple Maps has never been as popular as Google's product, so adding street-level images makes sense. Apple has vowed to keep innovating, but the smart money says Steve Jobs' dream of building cars remains on the shelf for now.