Autonomous Cars

Smart maps to get even smarter for driverless cars

Audi Autonomous Driving Cup 2016
A scene from Audi's 2016 Autonomous Driving Cup, where students compete for a cash prize, using scale models of driverless cars. Source: Audi PR

Last June, a sudden downpour washed out the summer party at Berlin-based digital mapping company Here Technologies. Within minutes the German capital got more rain that it has in a month. As cellars and streets flooded throughout the city, the programmers at Here were hunched over their computers, analyzing the wealth of data from cars stuck in the monsoon. “Data from lights and windshield wipers meant we could track the storm street by street!” says Ralf Herrtwich, head of the Here’s automotive division.

Two years ago, the former Nokia subsidiary was bought by German carmakers Audi, BMW and Daimler, who want to turn it into a digital powerhouse for the German auto industry and use its real-time mapping abilities to make driverless cars a reality by 2020. To make that happen, data from cars’ computers must be fed back into a massive cloud of data, enabling vehicular computers everywhere to keep track of every ten centimeters of road, every stop light, traffic jam and patch of black ice. All that will constantly be fed into the cloud, live, from millions of cars on the road.

Competition to achieve this is intense. Experts believe that just two or three major mapping companies will come to dominate the market. In a recent report, market research company Ovum put Here’s service ahead of its rivals Tomtom and Apple Maps. But looming over all three is Google, whose subsidiary, Waymo, wants to use the parent company’s extraordinary data resources to dominate.

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