You never forget your first ride in a self-driving car. The precision and reliability of an autonomous car, far greater than a human driver can provide, is a revelation. It’s a visceral confirmation that a bold new transportation reality is right around the corner.
I took my inaugural ride in 2013 when I rode inside a self-driving Nissan Leaf alongside Tetsuya Iijima, general manager of intelligent transportation systems engineering at Nissan. As the Leaf found its way around a test course, Iijima told me that on-board sensors would allow tomorrow’s cars to navigate without the need for pre-mapping the environment. Self-driving cars didn’t need to have the world around them pre-rendered into a form they could understand. These cars could be safer and more reliable than humans simply by gathering and processing data in real time from a battery of sensors, like lidar, radar, and video. They would “see” the world, and react.
“[IF THE CAR] CAN’T SEE THE CURBS OR LANE MARKINGS, IT’S ALMOST LIKE PUTTING A BLIND PERSON BEHIND THE WHEEL.”
That was the prehistoric age of self-driving. It turns out that sensors are only half the picture. Today, autonomous vehicles and their sensors are three years more advanced, yet there is a growing consensus among auto industry pros and analysts—including Nissan’s own engineers—that maps will make or break the age of self-driving cars.
“Nominally, you can do autonomous driving without high-definition maps,” says Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research. “But if you get into challenging situations like rainy or snowy conditions, or can’t see the curbs or lane markings, it’s almost like putting a blind person behind the wheel.” Therein lies the rub. For self-driving cars to gain real market acceptance, they need to have “anytime, anywhere capability,” Abuelsamid says.
That’s why the technology to map our world—not just on Google Maps, but in full 3D—is such a hot commodity. In December 2015, for example, BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen’s Audi acquired the digital mapping company HERE for $3.1 billion. Last week I met with HERE chief executive Edzard Overbeek in the company’s Berlin office, his first interview with outsiders since taking the company’s reins nearly four months ago. It’s no coincidence that Overbeek, a 30-year IT veteran, was hired based on his experience in the last 15 years as a top executive at Cisco, the world’s largest networking company. Overbeek envisions the three-dimensional rendering of the real world as the world’s next great digital network. He calls it the “location index.”
THE INTERNET OF PLACES
Internet search indexing is dominated by Google. The social index—the way people record and share personal experiences and derive meaning from it, and the very platforms that make online social interactions possible—is a bit more fragmented, but it’s mostly in the hands of Facebook. What Overbeek wants to dominate is the index for locations: how self-driving cars derive meaning from lane markings, traffic signs, and the entire built environment. It’s something that goes way beyond the street names, intersections, and points of interest in today’s navigation systems. It becomes the essential platform for getting around. “If you think about cars, drones, or advanced robotics, all these things that need to move from A to B, you need navigation technology” Overbeek says.
HERE has a three-decade head start in mapping roadways and points of interest, with that data served up to the cloud and licensed to automakers. If you’ve used a car’s onboard navigation system in recent years—to find a destination, or locate the closest gas station or coffee shop—then HERE is probably the company that tracked down that information, made sure it’s accurate, and put it into a form that your car can use. Nearly 30 brands of vehicles, representing about 80 percent of the market, access HERE’s data for use inside navigation systems designed by the auto manufacturer. In 2015, Jaguar Land Rover became the first car company to have HERE design the user interface for its navigation system in addition to supplying the data.
To obtain those points of interest, as well as the the richer, more detailed data needed for the new era of self-driving cars, HERE deploys about 400 vehicles equipped with a tower of spinning sensors to map the roadways of the world. These vehicles use lidar (laser-based radar), GPS locaters, and cameras capturing 16.8-megapixel images to produce data point clouds with uncanny two-centimeter precision. Altogether, HERE says, it collects 700,000 data points per second. A team of nearly 3,000 specialists, based mostly in Mumbai, India, cull and correct the data used in HERE maps, which the company shares with third-party tools and sells to companies like Garmin, Yahoo, Facebook, and Amazon.