Most car enthusiasts know that automakers will camouflage unreleased vehicles to stop prying eyes from taking a peek. It’s no secret that every automobile has to go through validation on public roads, but where does the inspiration for the cloak come from and what is the end goal?

Unsurprisingly this is a widely disputed topic as some believe that the crazy patterns attract more attention but others disagree. Believe it or not, the idea of vehicle camouflage is loosely inspired by World War 1 submarine warfare. Known as dazzle camo, Navy ships were painted with large angular shapes in contrasting colours to break up its profile from the perspective of a periscope. Along with hiding in plain sight, the juxtaposition of colours could also make it difficult to determine the boat’s heading.

Back on land in the automotive world, there is more research and development that goes into these patterns than you’d think. While every pattern is bespoke, one that stood out from the crowd came from Ford with a pattern designed to confuse both the human eye and autofocus camera systems. That said, the camouflage still isn’t perfect; no matter what pattern you put on a car, the body lines can still be visible when backlit.

Regardless of whether it was a practical joke or not, GM threw everyone for a loop when its Express minivans were in development. Rather than opting for a traditional disorientation strategy, the engineers simply tried to blend in with traffic; in doing so, the company disguised one van as an airline shuttle service, and the other as a plumbing van.

Regardless of whether you look twice when you see a van labeled “John Smith Plumbing” written in comic sans, taking spy shots is actually quite a risky profession. Brenda Priddy, one such photographer caught on the wrong side of the lens, has been physically assaulted (mentioning a broken nose), “accidentally” hit by a car, and pelted by rocks. 

As it turns out, unwarranted photos can be a bit of a double-edged sword for manufacturers. While they don’t want to give the public a detailed look at future vehicles, it’s an excellent opportunity for some publicity. So think twice next time you whip out your phone to take a snapshot of a mysterious looking test mule.