Auto Tech

What's Apple up to with that mystery van?

A Dodge minivan sprouting an array of cameras has an Apple connection. But to what end? The speculation is rolling.

A laser-based lidar sensor can give a self-driving car a 3D sense of its surroundings. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

An array of cameras on a minivan connected to Apple has provoked speculation that the maker of the iPhone and iPad could be bending its efforts toward a self-driving car.

Or perhaps Apple is working on a project similar to Google Street View, which links roadway images to Google's maps.

Whatever the purpose, there's not much to go on just yet.

The dark blue Dodge Grand Caravan was spotted near San Francisco earlier this week with a structure on its roof that seemed to include a lidar sensor (which would be used for mapping) and to be pointing cameras outward at the corners of the vehicle. After some digging, CBS affiliate KPIX in San Francisco determined that the vehicle was leased to Apple.

The minivan's camera contraption matches one pictured in a video posted to YouTube last fall, with the structure atop a white Grand Caravan and wires connected to the tires.

Early efforts at self-driving vehicles, from the ever-experimental Google and from traditional automakers such as Audi, have tended to favor an array of sensors, cameras and other devices on vehicle roofs. Google has since unveiled a self-driving prototype that does away with those external trappings.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, autonomous automobiles were a hot topic. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other carmakers, along with parts suppliers, talked up and showed off a variety of advances, while chipmaker Nvidia demonstrated its Drive PX computer for self-driving cars.

Apple does have ties to the automotive business, most notably through its CarPlay system, which mirrors an iPhone's apps and functions -- from Maps to iTunes to Siri -- through the vehicle's dashboard. Apple has partnered with several carmakers, including Audi, Honda and Ford, for the technology.

But for now, the evidence of what Apple might be up to is thin and strictly circumstantial. Though the car is leased to Apple, other companies could be using it to test their own products, or it could be that Apple has built a component in the camera system.

The blog 9to5Mac reports that Apple has not been issued the permits necessary to test self-driving cars.

If CarPlay turns out to be as far as Apple goes in the car business, that might prove a disappointment to some people. In 2013, international accounting firm KPMG conducted a study to find which companies consumers would trust most to build a driverless car. Apple and Google topped the list, beating out traditional automakers.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.