Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA is finally catching up to northern California and the New York City area. Yesterday in a local mini mall parking lot, a dark hued Dodge minivan mingled with more ordinary vehicles. Its oddity was on its roof, a bunch of space-age gizmos including two whirling around and making a slight buzzing sound.


Dodge mystery minivan, festooned with technicalities.

The fellow accompanying the minivan looked my way when I stared at the rig; we chatted.

“Is this a self-driving car?” I asked

“No,” he said, a bit guardedly, “It’s for road surveying.”

“Oh,” I said, “like Google?”

I didn’t intend it, but this seemed to put him on the defensive. “No, nothing like Google.”

“Uh, I don’t mean Google’s autonomous car. I mean its neighborhood mapping vehicle.”

“No,” he insisted, “It’s for road surveying.”


“So,” I asked, “that’s GPS stuff on top and those ports on the corners are sensors of some kind?”

“It’s for road surveying,” he said.

I was tempted to fritter away the man’s time by telling him all about my 33+ years as engineering editor at R&T, my own experience with autonomous vehicles and the time I …. However, my groceries were already loaded up, so I took a few happy snaps, wished the guy a nice day and let the research come later.

The Dodge had a wheel-rotation sensor for accurate distance measurement. I was tempted to ask to move the Caravan so it was out of the shade. I didn't.

The Dodge had a wheel-rotation sensor for distance measurement. I was tempted to ask to move the vehicle so the gizmo was out of the shade. I didn’t.

Here’s what I gleaned.

First, there’s nothing new about these mysterious Dodge Caravans. This past February 3, the Claycord News & Talk website reported on “The Mystery Vans Around Claycord—What Are They Doing?” Claycord is the collective noun for Clayton and its much larger sibling Concord, Contra Costa County communities about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.

Later that same day, the website offered an Update with videos of a “Dodge caravan self driving car in Brooklyn, New York.” Plenty of reader speculation followed, everything from “It’s a self driving vehicle” to “Olive Garden Restaurant site proposal team” to “Advance guard taking readings for black helicopter landing sites. Expect blue-helmeted UN troops to land any time and demand reparations for something….”

You gotta love the internet.

A day later, February 4, engadget added some veracity through sleuthing: It reported “Apple is driving camera-equipped minivans around California.” Apple was mum about it all, but someone bothered to run the plate numbers with the California DMV and found the minivans were leased to that Cupertino-based company.

The engadget report cogently included words like “maybe” and “possibly.” In particular, it conjectured that “Apple may just as easily be using these vans to add Street-View-style panoramas to Maps, improve the accuracy of its existing map data or something else entirely.”

In fact, the initial Apple Maps were not the equal of Google-generated counterparts. For example, in March of this year Macworld did an extensive article titled “Apple Maps vs Google Maps comparison review—has Apple done enough to beat its biggest rival?” In a few words, Apple needed to remedy matters and it’s working.

The self-driving hypothesis isn’t gone, however. A KPIX 5 news item embedded at the engadget site persisted with “Mystery Self-Driving Car Spotted in East Bay May Be Apple Project.” I must admit, self-driving is a big step up (down? over?) from those UN troops.

I did a bit of research to assess the appearance of mobile road surveying hardware versus autonomous vehicles. Surprisingly, with Google’s and others’ as exemplary, self-drivers tend to have less stuff out in the open than road-survey vehicles.


Google self-driving car. Image from The Telegraph, January 16, 2014.

Way back in January 2014 (well, it’s not that long ago), The Telegraph in Britain published an excellent summary titled “Autonomous cars—is this the end of driving?” It quoted Google co-founder Sergey Brin opining that its driverless cars would be commonplace on roads by 2017.

But back to the mystery Dodge Caravans. On April 1 of this year, Business Insider had an item, “Here’s our best view yet of Apple’s alleged self-driving car prototype.” By this point, the anonymous/autonomous Dodge activity even had a codename, Project Titan.” (Others suggest that Project Titan may be Apple’s electric car. Apple continues to be mum on the matter.)

Business Insider also offered a lengthy video of the mystery Dodge Caravan, shown throughout with a guy at the wheel. No less than The Wall Street Journal is quoted that Apple “is working on the design of a vehicle that resembles a minivan.”

Send no money. These securities have not been approved or disapproved….

In truth, since retirement I’ve fallen off a bunch of turnip trucks and chosen to jump off a few others. But I still recognize an interesting vehicle when I encounter one. My view: It’s an Apple map-remedy vehicle. Like the guy said, “It’s for road surveying.”

On the other hand, he did get into the passenger seat. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015

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