Auto Tech

How self-driving cars will be the mapmakers of our future cities

Here Maps has a plan to make itself a resource in the new age of autonomous vehicles.

Here makes several million tiny updates a day to keep its maps accurate and reliable. Here Maps

LONDON -- Here Maps is plotting a course for its future. The destination: becoming an engine of the new era of self-driving cars.

It's the latest company to jump into the hot arena of autonomous vehicles, which has attracted everyone from tech giant Google to traditional automakers. The mapping specialist is now nestled in among those car companies. In August, an alliance of Audi, BMW and Daimler ponied up $3.1 billion to acquire Here from Finnish telecom giant Nokia.

For the moment, self-driving cars remain prototypes, not production vehicles. They could start to become commercially available around 2020, according to automakers and others building them.

One of the key challenges with self-driving cars is the need to ensure that they have faultless navigation capabilities. That's where Here sees an opportunity.

The mission for Here is to create high-definition 3D maps that it hopes will play a critical role in self-driving cars. But the company's vision is bigger even than just helping autonomous vehicles find their way around. In the future, self-driving cars will not just be navigating cities, but helping to run them, said Floris van de Klashorst, Here's vice president of connected driving experiences, at a media event last week.

As the vehicles trundle around cities and up and down motorways, they will gather data not just about traffic, but about everything they encounter en route. Collectively, they will form an intelligent swarm, talking to each other for the purposes of navigation, but also reporting back to a central hub to help build up a picture of what's happening.

"Cars will help us to maintain the maps," said van de Klashorst. "For the HD map, cars will observe the infrastructure and will compare it to the static version of the world when they are in the car."

As a result, the map to which they contribute will become a dynamic, almost living thing, keeping vehicles and their environment in sync. "The map is no longer static. It is becoming a high-definition, highly precise representation of the real world," said van de Klashorst.

Here is working on HD maps that will eventually be fed crowdsourced information from autonomous vehicles. Here Maps

The way he pictures this is in layers, with the base layer -- the map as we see it today -- remaining pretty much unchanged, but layers on top being more fluid, shifting with the rhythms of the traffic and the more changeable elements of the urban landscape.

Here has already been supplying navigation maps as an alternative to those from Google and Apple.

"Up-to-date map data is very important to automated and autonomous driving, even more so than to navigation," said Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst for IHS Automotive. "These HD maps are now (partially) responsible for directly advising the vehicle itself how to behave. The connected car, along with ubiquitous information technology that helps us quantify our world ... is something that Here understands very well."

It used to be that big car manufacturers thought that they would make and maintain these maps themselves. For years, they have sat on their data, said van de Klashorst, but they have come to the realization that "if you don't keep it open, autonomous driving will not happen."

It will also be a group effort. A BMW vehicle driving the same road in Germany every day does not collect enough data for a self-driving car, van de Klashorst said. "You need to have a much higher density, much higher frequency and many types of cars driving there autonomously all the time," he said.

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Here offers real-time traffic for almost 50 countries. Here Maps

The industry appears to get it. Nokia's Here subsidiary, after all, was purchased by a consortium of companies, which is a good first step toward developing an industry standard. "The great progress that we've made is that we're now in a situation where the car manufacturers have started to understand," van de Klashorst said.

Because Here is "(almost) a shared industry asset" and has initiated industrywide dialogue on the topic, it has the potential to be the "agnostic aggregator" needed within the automotive world, said Carlson.

The data will be a boon to governments, too. Making cars part of the infrastructure of connected cities will allow transportation administrators to help a city adapt to what is happening within it. Take, for example, the ability to change traffic lights to let ambulances through, van de Klashorst said.

"The benefits of autonomous driving for society and for people are very well aligned with the social agenda of governments, and these maps will support that well," he said.