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

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Another mysterious van that could be part of an Apple Car project has been spotted by TechRadar.

After an initial van sighting in April, a similar Ford Transit, inconspicuous except for the large Lidar and camera rig on its roof, drove by while we were visiting Saratoga, Calif. today. 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, though, some notable changes between them as well.

Like the van we saw in a cluster of Apple office buildings in another Cupertino neighbor city almost four months ago, this van is white and has no markings indicating it belongs to the iPhone maker.

The rooftop rig, however, has undergone a major transformation. Its framework, for one, is now a solid black rectangle, rather than individual prongs sticking out from a central housing as seen on the first van.

Apple Car

Spinning Lidar on the four corners appear the same, but the camera housings are different; they’re white, not black as we’d seen before, and have a rounder shape. There are two cameras on the sides, and one on the front and back.

The large casing in the center of the rig, which likely houses more sensors, is also white and rounder and smaller than the black one we saw atop the previous van.

Apple Car van
The first van we spotted in April – notice the changes?

Finally, there’s a white disk positioned behind the central casing, which wasn’t on the first van. It looks to be a GPS sensor, and closely resembles a GPS driving sensor antenna seen on the back of a Tesla Model S during a self-driving press event in late 2015.

As you may have picked up, someone is in the driver seat, hands on the wheel; they appeared to be in control of the vehicle as it drove 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 vehicle’s not limited to one area and is trying its hand on different road conditions.

Apple Car rolls on?

Of course, it’s possible the vans belong to another company altogether, but circumstances suggest the vehicles are carrying out Apple business.

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, as it’s codenamed, 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 Teslas, the Apple Car will probably flex some self-driving muscle, though not be fully autonomous.

The camera- and Lidar-laden van 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.

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 Apple execs recently admitted they were “embarrassed” by, but still trail behind Google Maps. The van may be gathering data to create detailed 3D views for the navigation service, though we’re not sold on that idea.

Why? Because Apple already has Maps vans, ones that are clearly marked and openly discussed by the company. The white vans are ferrying around set-ups similar to what’s found in other self-driving cars, such as Google’s, another clue that’s their real purpose.

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 launch event next month.

We’ve asked Apple if it owns the vans and what they’re for being used for – besides joyriding – and will update this story if we hear anything.

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