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Battle to win street maps heats up

Whoever owns the most detailed version of up-to-the-minute maps will own an asset worth billions

Mark Bergen | Bloomberg 

Google's mapping project is focused on so-called driver-assistance systems that enable cars to automate some driving features
Google’s mapping project is focused on so-called driver-assistance systems that enable cars to automate some driving features

There are half a dozen autonomous cars mapping the same street corner in on any given day and and these cars from different company are all doing the same thing. They are building high-definition street maps, which may eventually serve as an on-board navigation guide for driverless vehicles.

These companies converge where the law and weather are welcoming—or where they can get the most attention.  Autonomous cars require powerful sensors to see and advanced software to think. They especially need up-to-the-minute maps of every conceivable roadway to move. Whoever owns the most detailed and expansive version of these maps that vehicles read will own an asset that could be worth billions.

This is how you get an all-out mapping war, with dozens of contenders entering into a dizzying array of alliances and burning tens of millions of investment dollars in pursuit of a massive payoff that could be years away.

The companies working on maps for autonomous vehicles are taking two different approaches.

One aims to create complete high-definition maps that will let the driverless cars of the future navigate all on their own; another creates maps piece-by-piece, using sensors in today’s vehicles that will allow cars to gradually automate more and more parts of driving.

is trying both approaches. A team inside Google is working on a that it may license to automakers, according to four people familiar with its plans, which have not previously been reported.  This mapping service is different than the high-definition maps that Waymo. Google’s mapping project is focused on so-called driver-assistance systems that enable cars to automate some driving features and help them see what’s ahead or around a corner. Google released an early version of this in December, called Vehicle Mapping Service, that incorporates sensor data from cars into their maps.

For now, Google is offering it to carmakers that use Android Automotive, the company’s embedded operating system for cars. Google has named three partners for that system to date, but other automakers are reluctant to hand their dashboards over to the search giant.

“We’ve built a comprehensive map of the world for people and we are working to expand the utility to our maps to cars,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. She declined to comment on future plans.

At the same time, Waymo and the other giants with sizable driverless research arms—including General Motors, Uber and Ford Motor—are all sending out their own fleets to create rich, detailed HD maps for use in driverless cars.  These self-driving maps are far more demanding than older digital ones, prompting huge investments across Detroit, and China.  Making a driverless map, like making a driverless car, is a laborious task. Fleets of autonomous test cars, loaded with expensive lidar sensors and cameras, go out into the world with human backup drivers and capture their surroundings.  It’s an expensive ordeal with a payoff that’s years, if not decades, away.

“Even if you could drive your own vehicles around and hit every road in the world, how do you update?” asked Dan Galves, a spokesman for Mobileye. “You’d have to send these vehicles around again.”

Unlike conventional digital maps, self-driving maps require almost-constant updates. The slightest variation on the road—a construction zone that pops up overnight, or a bit of debris—could stop a driverless car in its tracks. “It’s the freak thing that happens that’s going to make autonomous not work,” said McNally, the analyst.

Mobileye argues that it’s more efficient and cost-effective to let the cars we’re driving today see what’s ahead. In January, the Intel unit announced a “low-bandwidth” mapping effort, with its front-facing camera and chip sensor that it plans to place in 2 million cars this year.

The idea is to get cars to view such things as lane makers, traffic signals and road boundaries, letting them automate some driving.

Mobileye says this will take less computing horsepower than building a comprehensive HD map of the roads would; Mobileye’s Galves said the company will pair its sensor data with the maps from navigational companies and, over time, create a map that a fully driverless car could use.

That’s also the tactic of Google’s longtime mapping foes: HERE and TomTom NV. These two European companies have positioned themselves as the primary alternatives to Google Maps, selling the dashboard screen maps to automakers today.

Yet these “static” maps see only broad street shapes and capture snapshots in time. Now both companies are working on replacement products: “dynamic” maps that represent lanes, curbs and everything else on the road.

The hope is that car manufacturers will stick with old-guard mapmakers as vehicles move from somewhat intelligent to automated vehicles without steering wheels.

Tesla is the car company most eagerly embracing the incremental march toward autonomous driving with its driver-assistance software, Autopilot.

It hasn’t disclosed what mapping service it’s using for Autopilot, and a company representative declined to comment.

But Tesla has leaned on at least one other company, Mapbox Inc., to help assemble its maps. Tesla paid $5 million to Mapbox for a two-year licensing deal in December 2015, according to a regulatory filing.

“We have more sensors on the road today than the entire connected car space will have by 2020,” said Chief Executive Officer Eric Gundersen. Its pitch to carmakers is to use that location data as a base layer for future maps—pairing it with camera systems, such as Mobileye’s, or their own sensor data. And like other companies targeting automakers, Mapbox is happy to play neutral and work with anyone. “We don't know who is going to win,” Gundersen said.

In the race

* Waymo and other giants with sizable driverless research arms such as General Motors, Uber and Ford Motor, are sending their own fleet to create rich, detailed HD maps for use in driverless cars

* Smaller start-ups are also hawking gadgets or specialised software to build these maps for automakers

* Other suppliers working on mapping services for conventional cars with limited robotic features

First Published: Thu, February 22 2018. 00:10 IST