Apple Inc.s Mystery Cars: Better Maps or Something Bigger?

By Andrew

Apple's back, that much is clear.

If any doubts lingered, the world's largest publicly traded company unequivocally silenced them by setting fresh all-time records with its recent earnings blowout --not only for itself but for the entire corporate world.

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So, now what?

That's the question many investors are asking themselves with Apple's historic report now firmly in the rear view. And with future growth drivers on the forefront of many investors' minds, a recent Apple product rumor surfaced that's both tantalizing and ridiculous at the same time. Let's dive in.

Apple's mysterious autos Over the past several months, a mysterious number of cars that are registered to and apparently owned by Apple have been seen canvassing the streets of major cities like San Francisco and New York City.

Sounds benign enough.

However, these Apple autos have reportedly been affixed with Light Detection and Ranging System (LIDAR), which isused to gather real world street-side images. They're the cars Google has used to gather the images that power the popular "street view" functionality in Google Maps. But here's where things get interesting, and maybe a bit insane. Google has also used these same LIDAR cameras to power and collect information for its highly publicized self-driving car "moonshot" initiative. As you might imagine, this has led to rampant speculation that Apple might be preparing its own self-driving car initiative or something even more significant. And as tempting as it might be to daydream about these kinds of "what if" scenarios, it's also important to remain firmly rooted in reality in observing and distilling this story line.

Consider this your bucket of cold water to the face.

Mostly maps True, Apple could be working on something bigger here, but it's vastly more likely that the company is merely using these vans and their imaging systems to improve the quality of its maps. And although this is clearly less exciting than Apple breeding the next Uber competitor (a la Google), mapping's also an underappreciated area of the Apple ecosystem that could certainly use improving.

Remember that Apple's ecosystem -- its network of content and apps -- is truly the mortar that holds the company's financial empire together. Apple generates the vast majority of its sales and profits from the sale of its expensive hardware, but people continue to spend hand over fist on the company's suite of iDevices because they love the software and services on the platform.

In Apple's closed ecosystem, the company powers much of the software side of the user experience (mail, messaging, browsers, etc.). However, one of the few places Apple noticeably lags the competition is in mapping. For example, as of last August, Google Maps enjoyed nearly 22.5 million more users than Apple Maps in the U.S, despite Apple's iPhone being the overwhelmingly most popular smartphone in America. Maps have long been a sore point and potential area for improvement for Apple, and it's likely this is simply an example of Apple making good on that promise.

Although still a few years off, seemingly far-flung technologies such as driver-less cars are probably more realistic than many investors realize. And as Google has proven, having real world mapping data is exceedingly valuable in both the short term and long term.

But it's important to remember that Apple is most likely simply addressing one of the key sore spots in its prized ecosystem with these camera-laden cars. Sure, there's potential it all could be part of some "grand plan" for Apple, but if not, investors should take solace in that the company's addressing one of its most acute deficiencies.

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If he's honest with himself (and the reader)Andrew Tonner'sallegianceis split somewhere between Apple Maps and Google Maps. Andrew also gets lost a lot. He alsoowns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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