On any given day, there could be a half dozen autonomous cars mapping the same street corner in Silicon Valley. These cars, each from a different company, are all doing the same thing: 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. For example, a flock of mapping vehicles congregates every year in the vicinity of the CES technology trade show, a hot spot for self-driving feats. “There probably have been 50 companies that mapped Las Vegas simply to do a CES drive,” said Chris McNally, an analyst with Evercore ISI. “It’s such a waste of resources.”
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.
Google won by blanketing the globe with its street-mapping cars and with software expertise that couldn’t be matched by navigation companies, automakers and even Apple Inc Nobody wants to let Google win again.
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.
Alphabet is trying both approaches. A team inside Google is working on a 3-D mapping project 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, another Alphabet unit, is creating for its autonomous vehicles.
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.
At the same time, Waymo and the other giants with sizable driverless research arms—including General Motors Co, Uber Technologies Inc and Ford Motor Co—are all sending out their own fleets to create rich, detailed HD maps for use in driverless cars. There are also smaller startups hawking gadgets or specialised software to build these maps for automakers that find themselves farther behind. Still other suppliers are working on mapping services for conventional cars with limited robotic features, such as adaptive cruise control or night vision.
These self-driving maps are far more demanding than older digital ones, prompting huge investments across Detroit, Silicon Valley and China. "An autonomous vehicle wants that to be as precise, accurate and up-to-date as possible," said Bryan Salesky, who leads Argo AI LLC, a year-old startup backed by a $1 billion investment by Ford.
Making a driverless map, like making a driverless car, is a labourious 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. Plotting the results helps train the next fleet, which will still have safety drivers at the wheel—and, in some cases, scores of additional humans sitting behind computer monitors to catalog all the footage. 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 Corp 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 markers, 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 fully automated vehicles without steering wheels.
HERE, owned by a consortium of German automakers, has a few examples on the road. Its mapping system enables limited hands-free driving for Audi AG, one of its co-owners, and plans to support safety features this year for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, another co-owner. (Intel also took a 15 per cent stake in HERE last year.)
Tesla Inc is the car company most eagerly embracing the incremental march toward autonomous driving with its driver-assistance software, Autopilot. Tesla relies on cameras and sensors on its vehicles but has eschewed lidar. The company hasn’t disclosed what mapping service it’s using for Autopilot, and a company representative declined to comment. Tesla had a nasty public split with Mobileye.