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My first-ever Apple Maps car seen mapping West Broadway

June 13, 2019

The Apple Maps car seen going westbound in the 1400 block of West Broadway Ave. at 3:59 p.m.

Many times I’ve seen Google Street View cars zipping around Vancouver’s Fairview neighbourhood but I’ve never seen an Apple Maps car—until today.

This afternoon (June 13th) a homeless friend I was talking to in the 1400 block West Broadway Ave. McDonald’s suddenly directed his gaze out the restaurant’s front window and appeared to give the finger to the outside world.

I was unseating myself and reseating the SD card in my little Fuji Finepix Z, even as I looked to see what my friend was looking at.

Coming up the westbound lane of West Broadway Avenue was a seemingly unmarked white four-door car with a camera mast sticking straight up from its roof.

The car was obviously a Subaru Impreza hatchback—like Google Street View cars used to be, until 2018. But it was not a Google Street View car.

I’ve seen Google’s mapping cars three or four times since 2014. They are always covered in a telltale, illustrative vinyl wrap. Up to 2016 they were wrapped in Google’s corporate colours of green, blue, yellow and red and bore Ontario license plates.

The most recent Google Street View car I saw on West Broadway, in 2018, was decked out in a brand new style of wrap depicting a mountainous, cloud-shrouded, panoramic landscape. And it was not an Impreza but rather a 2017 Hyundai Elantra GT, bearing California license plates.

The stark white vehicle I saw speeding down West Broadway Thursday afternoon, was, in fact, an Apple Maps car, which is a species of mapping vehicle that I have never seen before.

A closer look at this new variety of Apple Maps car

Apple Maps car #613 showing its poor branding, B.C. plates and one other obvious distinction: a mechanism to record rear wheel rotation.

Admittedly, there wasn’t that much to see.

The Apple Maps car was a Subaru Impreza sporting B.C. licence plates. The plain white body of the car was unmarked by any decoration or branding except for the small number “613”, just ahead of the driver-side door.

The one notable thing—that I have never seen on a Google Street View car—was a mechanical attachment between the camera platform on the roof of the car and the hub of the rear wheel on the driver-side of the car.

According to MacRumours, the Subaru Impreza became the new Apple Maps car in 2018, replacing minivans, which had been the street-mapping platform of choice for Apple’s mapping service, going back to its origin, in 2015.

MacRumour couldn’t say how the new 2018 model Apple Maps car might be outfitted but explained that previous setups included “four LIDAR arrays, eight cameras, a GPS rig, a measurement tool attached to a rear wheel for precise distance tracking and image capture, and inside, a Mac Pro for storing all the data”.

Here until apples ripen

According to a May 27th announcement by Apple: “beginning in May, Apple Maps will be driving across Canada throughout the summer”.

“We’ll be capturing road details, signage and landmarks—all to make the most accurate and useful Maps experience possible. The information collected will be worked on by our teams in Cupertino, California. We plan to publish this data in a future product update.”

The announcement goes on to assure law-abiding Canadians that Apple believes in obeying laws also and will be “working closely with local regulators to…follow all laws and regulations”.

We are also told that Apple Maps cars will protect Canadians’ privacy (“privacy is a fundamental Apple principle”), while being completely open about their own identity:

“All of our vehicles are marked Apple Maps, so you’ll always know it’s us”.

And technically, at least, that last statement is no lie, where Apple’s LIDAR-equiped mapping cars are concerned.

The plain truth about Apple Maps cars and Apple Maps

The Apple Maps car turns north onto South Granville–perhaps heading downtown, or to West 8th Avenue.

The Apple Maps car that I saw on Thursday did have “Apple Maps” and a URL marked in small white lettering on its rear side widows—both passenger and driver side. But that was all there was in the way of branding.

But for the fancy camera mast the Apple Maps car might have been a workaday vehicle belonging to a city courier, instead of one of the richest and largest tech companies on earth.

There was no iconic grey Apple logo on the hood and/or passenger and driver side front doors—like you might expect and which would have made the car identifiable as belonging to Apple at a glance.

The funny thing is, Apple’s mapping car looked just as plain and naked compared to the Google mapping cars I’ve seen, as Apple Maps does, compared to Google Maps.

And that is exactly what Apple is trying to address this summer, where its mapping of Canada is concerned.

I wish them bonne chance, or perhaps I should say bon courage. Click the images to enlarge them.

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