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Apple hits the road with camera-equipped cars in Street View challenge

Apple says that it "will blur faces and license plates" as it collects images around the world for its Street View challenger.

Apple's Craig Federighi talks about Apple Maps at WWDC. CNET

If you see a car snapping photos of you as it drives by your home, it might just be Apple behind the wheel.

Apple is driving around the world to capture images for a service that sounds a lot like Google's Street View. The company confirmed its plans on a webpage, called Apple Maps vehicles. The page says that the company is hitting the road "to collect data which will be used to improve Apple Maps." Apple doesn't say outright that it's building a Street View competitor, but the description of its service seems to make its intentions clear.

"We are committed to protecting your privacy while collecting this data," Apple wrote on the new webpage. "For example, we will blur faces and license plates on collected images prior to publication."

Apple's comments echo modifications Google was forced to make to its Street View service, an offering built into Google Maps that allows users to go to street level to see locations. After snapping photos of streets around the world, several critics argued that it violated privacy rights by providing at least some identifying information that could be used to patch together a person's location at a given time. In response, Google blurred all license plates and faces that may have been captured as it cruised the world's streets.

The addition of a Street View-like service would deliver a significant enhancement to Apple Maps and position the service as a more credible alternative to Google Maps. After its launch in 2012, Apple Maps, which comes bundled with all Apple operating systems and delivers full mapping, directions, and information on establishments, was a mess, overrun with inaccuracies and glitches. The issues prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to formally apologize. He went as far as to suggest users download third-party applications, including Google Maps, while his company got the kinks worked out.

Since then, Apple has quietly improved Apple Maps, fixing its accuracy issues and improving its usability. At its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on Monday, Apple talked up Maps, saying that it now receives 5 billion requests from users per week. Those requests could be address lookups, directions requests or an attempt to view a particular locale.

During his discussion on updates to Apple's upcoming mobile operating system update iOS 9 , Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi also showed off a notable update to Maps, called Transit. The feature will provide users directions for walking and transit services, like buses, subways or trains. If a user taps a train station, for instance, Apple Maps will show all the lines that run through the station. The app also includes entrance and exit information to make it easier for people to get around complicated, multilevel stations.

Apple's new webpage may also douse flames over whether the company is working on a self-driving car. Several vans registered to Apple containing mounted cameras have been spotted around the US over the last several months. Some have speculated that Apple's intentions were to build a self-driving car and the company was testing out its technology. Apple's new webpage, however, suggests those vans may have only been driven around town to benefit Apple Maps.

Despite its improvements, Apple Maps still has a ways to go to catch up to its archival Google Maps, which includes more features, including Street View, and is generally still viewed as a more reliable option. That battle with Google Maps isn't lost on Apple.

In addition to touting the 5 billion Maps requests, Federighi noted that his company's mapping service is used three-and-a-half times more frequently on iOS than "the next leading maps app." The thinly veiled shot at Google Maps, which prior to the launch of Apple Maps, was the default mapping service on iOS, was not lost on the crowd at WWDC, which chuckled along with Federighi at the statement. However, Federighi failed to note that Google Maps is a third-party download and Apple Maps comes bundled with iOS, which could account for the discrepancy in usage: one is running on every device and the other is only running on some. Federighi's comparison also failed to include all the other ways Google Maps is accessed, including on Android devices and via the Web.

Still, the comments are clear: Google Maps is a target, and Apple is using Street View as a means to match its top competitor.

Apple has published a handy guide showing where its cars will be heading in the next two weeks. The company plans to hit the road from June 15 to June 30 in Ireland, England, and across several states in the US.

Neither Apple nor Google immediately responded to a request for comment.