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Apple Maps: Grand plan to fix iPhone Maps app

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If you’ve ever used Apple Maps to get around, you’ll know it often falls short of rival apps.

So the company has now announced it will rebuild its Maps data using a fleet of specially-designed vans.

It will also use data gathered from iPhones to power traffic information.

The move is a necessary step if Apple is to have stronger data about the world around us, analysts say.

In an interview with technology news website Techcrunch, Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue said the company would be “building all of our own map data from the ground up”.

To do this, the company has been driving sensor-packed vans around the US for the past few years. The vehicles collect GPS information, but also capture scans of areas using Lidar, the technology typically associated with self-driving cars.

Gradual roll-out

The improved Apple Maps will be activated for users slowly, beginning with a small number in San Francisco in the next few weeks, according to Techcrunch. It will then expand to Northern California.

The rest of the US will be upgraded region-by-region “over the next year”. No timeline for international roll-out has been shared. One of Apple’s vans was apparently spotted by a man leaving a pub in Yeovil, England.

In addition to the mapping vans, Apple will use anonymised data from iPhone users already using Maps.

The company will also deploy satellite imagery to improve accuracy further.

The end-goal, as stated by Apple, is to remove the company’s reliance on data from third-party services – an approach that has given Apple Maps issues with reliability and accuracy.

“We decided to do this just over four years ago,” Mr Cue told Techcrunch.

“We said, ‘Where do we want to take Maps? What are the things that we want to do in Maps?’.

“We realised that, given what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take it, we needed to do this ourselves.”

Much-needed improvements

Apple Maps was very poorly received when it was released in September 2012. Missing data and unreliable directions led to chief executive Tim Cook writing a letter of apology to customers.

Since then, the company has improved the software considerably, but it is still regarded as inferior to other products such as Google Maps or Waze.

According to Creative Strategies, 45% of US iPhone users use Google’s app, compared to just 36% using Apple’s system – which is installed by default. Globally, Apple said the majority of iPhone owners use Apple Maps.

“I don’t think this is about competing with Google, but more like making sure iPhone users who use Maps have a good experience,” said Carolina Milanesi, from Creative Strategies.

“The better they make it, the more people will continue to use it, and the more data Apple will get.”

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Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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