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Mapping streets with a Navteq field team

CNET takes a ride with a Navteq field team to see how it collects information and updates the maps used in GPS devices.

Navteq Ford Escape
This older-model Ford Escape is equipped with professional-grade GPS and a computer designed to map streets. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On a sunny Tuesday morning I sat in the back of a Navteq Ford Escape meandering around the new UCSF Mission Bay campus, which had recently arisen on the bay side of San Francisco. Navteq employee Mark drove while Alejandro studied a big monitor on a post above the console. The monitor showed the existing digital street map of the area, which, because of the new construction, bore little resemblance to the roads we traveled.

Alejandro noted that when he tells people about his job it seems pointless, because the country has already been mapped, hasn't it? I was getting a first-hand look what a Navteq field team does every day, digging deep into the changes that can come about from a big development project, like the UCSF campus, or smaller road projects, such as when a municipality decides to block off a street.

Navteq may not be a familiar name, but most people have heard of Garmin, TomTom, Magellan, and Navigon, companies that make portable navigation devices. Navteq is one of two major digital map makers, the other being Tele Atlas, that maintain digital maps of every road in the U.S., and other countries as well. The majority of portable navigation devices, factory navigation systems in cars, and the various online map sources use maps from either Navteq or Tele Atlas.

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The Navteq field team vehicle we rode in sported a luggage rack on the roof modified to hold a GPS antenna and a bubble with six cameras. In back were a computer and the GPS system. This industrial-grade GPS was much more accurate than a typical portable navigation device. Alejandro noted that, because of the sensitivity of this GPS technology, Navteq employees were forbidden to drive the cars outside of the U.S.

As we drove, the GPS system recorded the truck's position three times per second, leaving a breadcrumb trail on the map showing on the cabin's big monitor. Alejandro, in the passenger seat, used a pen tablet to make notes, updating information about the road we were on. Check boxes on the interface let him indicate in which lane the truck traveled, whether the road was one-way or two-way, the speed limit, and a number of other attributes. Navteq even records whether there is a divider in the road, so a navigation system can determine if it is possible to make a left turn.

The pen tablet also let him scribble down notes, such as the address of a building or the letters FR, which meant the area needs further research. The system also allows for audio notes, each audio file attached to a specific GPS location.

And that camera array on top of the car? It's not for taking Google Street View-type photographs. The photographic imagery lets a Navteq employee review the map data gathered by the field team, updating and verifying attributes of the road.

In this area that had been recently built up, the Navteq team made notes about pedestrian walkways that cut through the buildings, and updated a street name that had been changed since the last map revision.

Back at the office, the field team would pull the two 500GB drives from the computer in the back of the car and load them to a server. At this point, they verify changes and upload a final map revision. Navteq releases four map updates per year to its navigation system maker clients. It is up to those navigation system makers to release map updates to consumers.

The Ford Escape I rode in was not the latest in Navteq mapping technology. The company previously unveiled a new generation of vehicle, which, along with the professional-grade GPS, uses a laser system to make a 3D map of the environment. Bing has also contracted with Navteq, putting its own cameras for taking street-view images onto the new generation of Navteq mapping vehicles.