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Is Apple developing its own self-driving car?

Apple's mystery vans spotted around San Franc... 03:18

Apple (AAPL) has a mysterious vehicle sporting cameras and sensing equipment that is driving around the San Francisco Bay Area. Its appearance is leading to the question, "What's Apple up to now?"

Speculation runs from a self-driving vehicle to a system that could duplicate Google's (GOOG) Street View, providing a necessary upgrade to Apple's own mapping systems. For years Apple licensed Google Maps for its mobile devices until developing its own version.

The questions have gone officially unanswered as of now. Apple did not respond to a CBS MoneyWatch request for comment before publication and refused to comment to San Francisco CBS station KPIX-TV. However, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told KPIX that the car is leased to Apple, although the company does not have a permit for a driverless car.

Much of the speculation about a self-driving vehicle comes from a YouTube video the purports to show a similarly-equipped self-driving minivan in Brooklyn, New York.

But the lack of an appropriate permit leaves some to think that Apple is more likely developing a mapping system.

However, it could be that Apple might have created a subsidiary for a driverless car initiative and applied for a permit under a name not immediately identified with the company. Apple has frequently used shell companies to quietly obtain trademarks without tipping its strategic hand. Or, as a tech analyst told KPIX-TV, Apple also works in partnerships with other companies and could be doing the same.

The van appears to sport LiDAR equipment, a laser sensor technology used both in high resolution mapping and in self-driving cars. Improving its mapping offerings would seem a more immediately practical possibility, as Apple Maps has been criticized in the past for falling short of Google's offering.

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