Three years after Apple launched its own iOS Maps app to replace Google as its iPhone and iPad map provider, the Cupertino company is readying its first major enhancements to the service. While Apple was known to be gearing up for the launch of a mass transit directions service this fall in a handful of cities, sources have revealed that it is also developing its first entirely in-house mapping database to reduce its reliance on TomTom, using a fleet of mysterious vans to take still photos of business storefronts to replace Yelp photos, and building a 3D Street View feature. Apple has been using the sensor-equipped vans in cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York since earlier this year, and, below, we detail how the vehicles are advancing Apple’s plans for the future of Maps…

In-house Maps data by 2018

Since the initial Apple Maps launch on the iPhone and iPad in the fall of 2012, Apple has utilized fundamental geography data pulled together from several third-party sources, including TomTom. This core data for mapping software is known as the “base map.” The initial data errors reported by Apple Maps users were in part the result of Apple aggregating several data sources, instead of building its own singular database as rivals Google, MapQuest, and Nokia HERE have done for years.

Apple is now in the process of collecting its own base map data, using beige, black, and white minivans to augment work already done by recent acquisitions such as BroadMap. These minivans have been the subject of rampant speculation since they were first spotted months ago, including many guesses that they were test vehicles for upcoming Apple-designed cars. However, sources indicate that they are solely being used to gather data and images for the Apple Maps application.

The current plan is to revamp the foundation of the Maps application, shifting to the in-house base map database by 2017; this would lead to the cutting of ties with partners such as TomTom, which currently have multi-year Maps contracts. While Apple hopes to achieve the 2017 shift, a source says that Apple is not completely on track to meet this goal, so a 2018 launch may be more likely.

Apple Maps (Left) in 2012 not showing lake (Right)

Apple Maps (Left) in 2012 <a href="http://theamazingios6maps.tumblr.com/page/2">not showing lake</a> (Right)

For end users, this change will mean more accurate and rapidly updated data. For Apple, this means more control over the core user experience, and, consequently, less of a need to rely on partners for data to be updated. Apple is notably taking a similar approach to its upcoming indoor mapping feature, which is being developed entirely in-house with iBeacons equipped to small autonomous robots.

3D Street View 

In addition to assisting with in-house data collection, the Apple Maps vans are equipped with cameras to collect Street View data. Apple does not believe that classic Street View interfaces developed by Google are intuitive to the user, according to sources with knowledge of Apple’s work on Maps services, so the company is exploring new ways to present Street View imagery.

To expand its 3D Flyover mode in Maps, Apple is working on ways to tie together its new camera data to make a street level version of 3D Maps for a future version of its Maps app. As Apple has only recently started collecting its 3D Street View data, such a feature is not likely to be imminent. However, Apple has another plan for the imagery it’s gathering that will appear sooner rather than later.

Replacing Yelp with storefront stills 

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Apple Maps listing showing Yelp photo

Sources say that Apple’s camera equipped vans are taking still pictures of businesses along commercial roads, an initiative Apple has internally codenamed “Project Gardar,” an apparent reference to Norse strongholds in new territory. Apple has planned to begin integrating still exterior photos of points of interest this fall in its iOS 9 Maps app. Currently, the individual cards (or listings) within the Apple Maps application are illustrated with Yelp’s images, as seen in the screenshot above. In order to reduce its reliance on Yelp, Apple wants to replace photos taken by amateur reviewers with its own pictures of storefronts. Replacing Yelp’s images with ones snapped from vans is a long-term initiative planned for a gradual rollout, rather than one that will happen all at once. It is unclear if Apple is still on track to begin the transition with iOS 9, but it appears likely to begin within the next year at the latest.

Apple initially launched its van project to verify, plus add to, its work on an in-house, next-generation Maps geography database and to take still photos of storefronts, but sources say that the photos can be stitched together for other purposes, such as for the aforementioned 3D Street View feature.

Earlier this month, we revealed Apple’s plans to launch a robust mass-transit directions service for iOS 9, along with details on Apple’s plans for new Augmented Reality and Browse Around Me features for the iPhone and iPad Maps applications. As Apple uses similar features for its Maps app on OS X, the company is likely to integrate data from its next projects on the Mac as well over the course of the next few years.

For iOS 9, Apple is also working on a tweaked user-interface with a new typeface, a Home app to control HomeKit devices, split screen apps for the iPad, a Google Now-competitor, Force Touch support, iMessage improvements, a new keyboard, and an overall focus on quality, security, and stability. Apple is working on similar stability enhancements for OS X 10.11, in addition to new features such as Control Center. Apple’s WWDC keynote takes place on Monday, June 8th.