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.

“Real-time information will be crucial to controlling the driverless traffic of the future.”

Nikolaus Lang, automotive expert, Boston Consulting

For the past year, the three premium German carmakers have installed Here’s technology into their new cars. This means 400,000 units sending back real-time data to Here’s central computers. In a year, the figure will reach one million. The company also has a fleet of 400 vehicles patrolling the streets, with radars, cameras and sensors. But as data collection is automatized using standard equipment in all cars, the special data-capture vehicles will become redundant, says Mr. Herrtwich.

“We believe real-time information will be crucial to managing the driverless traffic of the future,” says Nikolaus Lang, automotive expert at Boston Consulting: “For that to work, a seamless connection between car and cloud is needed.” Current mobile networks are not up to that job. It will require 5G technology, the next generation of mobile communications, which can process data even as it is transmitted.

According to a study by Mr. Lang’s organisation, around a quarter of all the kilometers driven in the US will have been driven by autonomous cars.

On the way to a Digital Summit on an Austrian summit, Handelsblatt Global's Editor-in-Chief asks Johann Jungwirth, Chief Digital Officer of VW, about the role of maps in self-driving cars.

Waymo, the mapping company owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has taken a clear lead in real-time mapping, establishing partnerships with Fiat-Chrysler, Lyft and Avis. The company not only packages Google’s own real-time mapping data, it offers its customers the software and sensors to go with it, the heart and brain of any robot car.

Since October, Waymo has been testing the world’s first fleet of robot taxis near Phoenix, in the US state of Arizona. Waymo is building its business model on carmakers only providing the hardware, offering vehicle manufacturers an all-in-one package, that will allow for quicker introduction of the new technology. That’s a tough one for carmakers to swallow: They want to become digital giants in their own right.

14 p16 Steps to the Driverless Car-01

German automakers also want to avoid dependence on a single supplier and are eyeing premature field trials suspiciously. The industry was shaken last year by the death of a Tesla test driver in Florida: His Model S had “autopilot” mode engaged, but the system failed to spot an oncoming truck, leading to a fatal collision. The technology will only be ready for live road-testing when every system is fully backed up by other fail-safe devices, say industry sources.

This makes it all the more important to grow Here’s sources of data as quickly as possible, says Mr. Herrtwich. More than 20 car makers and suppliers now use Here technology, he says: “We’re working to get even more on board, as data users and data suppliers.” The more open the system is and the more partners there are, the better the data will be.

Unsurprisingly, the IT industry also wants a piece of the action. In January, chipmaker Intel acquired 15 percent of Here. Two months later, the American company paid $15.3 billion for Mobileye, which makes software that processes information from digital cameras. As competition heats up, global alliances and partnerships are proliferating: Intel and Mobileye are also involved in a separate, BMW-led consortium to build a shared self-driving platform by 2021.

In the race to map the world for driverless cars, the biggest prize may be China, the German car industry’s biggest market. But while US and European markets are relatively open, China’s remains closed to foreign mapping software. So Audi, BMW and Mercedes badly want to get Chinese partners on board.

Unfortunately for them, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States recently prevented Chinese digital firms Navinfo and Tencent from taking a stake in Here. “We don’t know exactly why but mapping has always been political,” says Mr. Herrtwich.

But partnerships with the Chinese companies will continue, as they and Here work on establishing common standards in in an effort to set common global standards.

image-media-asset-hd-map-captures-billions-of-3d-points-3200×2400
This is what your vehicle sees: A car's eye view, using Here Technology mapping. Source: Here PR

Currently development of the driverless car is defined as having five different phases. These go from level one, where the car can park itself, to level five, where it can drive anywhere alone, minimising risks. In July at the Audi summit in Barcelona, the company head Rupert Stadler introduced the new A8 model, which enters the market boasting level three development. At the press of a button, the sedan is able to drive itself at speeds of up to 60 kilometers an hour -but only if certain, strict road conditions are met. That includes no pedestrians, no merging traffic and clear road markings. Mostly the new system is intended to ease the pain of driving in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, on the motorway.

But the driver won’t be able to relax and start watching a movie or surfing the internet. Legally, they will still have to be able to take control of the car again within ten seconds – and that is only when level 3 becomes legal.

The Audi A8 has used Here’s software to achieve all this, with sensors looking kilometers ahead to check on traffic and road conditions. Audi’s Peter Mertens, the member of the board for technical development, has said he’s looking forward to the A8 going faster – up to 130 kilometers per hour – all by itself. Meanwhile all that Here is looking forward to is seeing all that data gathered by Audi’s newest cars being beamed up, into it’s very own cloud.

Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. To contact the author: fasse@handelsblatt.com

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