Self-driving cars would be nowhere without HD maps
Self-driving vehicles may be loaded with sensors and artificial intelligence, but they're limited without a really good map.
Why it matters: High-definition maps are critical to the safe, wide-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles. More accurate than satellite-based GPS, they provide richly detailed models of the operating environment and important context to help AVs avoid mistakes.
Driving the news: A Tesla owner tweeted a video clip recently showing how his car's Autopilot system mistook a low-hanging moon for a yellow traffic light and kept telling the car to slow down.
While Tesla did not publicly address the reasons for the error, industry experts suggest Tesla's camera-based system was lacking important context.
"Even though a traffic light and the moon may resemble each other, a self-driving system should use a combination of contextual cues — including spatial, temporal and prior knowledge — to tell them apart," Deva Ramanan, principal scientist at self-driving tech competitor Argo AI explains in a blog post.
An HD map — along with redundant sensors like radar and lidar — can provide that missing context, Gartner Group mobility analyst Michael Ramsey tells Axios.
"It would know where there are traffic lights. The moon is not a yellow light because there are no traffic lights in this area," he said.
The big picture: Mapping is having a moment. Digital maps are getting more sophisticated, with breakthroughs enabling real-time navigation details for pedestrians, 3D geolocation for drones and augmented reality for gaming.
For autonomous vehicles, HD maps do more than just provide a high-def view of the world — they also enable a self-driving car to know precisely where it is, down to a few centimeters.
Between the lines: Most AV developers get to know a test city the same way any new resident does: by driving around.
They spend a few weeks manually driving their test cars in complex urban environments, collecting sensor data and annotating everything about the streetscape, from signs and lane markings to crosswalks and speed limits.
This allows a test vehicle to later compare what it observes in real-time with the detailed 3D map, and decide how to react.
Developers can even program insights about local driving behaviors into their digital maps. AVs can be instructed to drive below the speed limit on a certain stretch, for example, or to stop beyond the line for better visibility at a challenging intersection.
Developers can repeat that map-making process city by city.
The intrigue: Intel-owned Mobileye, which makes technology for assisted-driving systems, has a unique, crowd-sourced approach to mapping that experts say could one day provide an advantage.
Its camera-based software chips are already installed on 88 million cars worldwide, and through agreements with six global automakers — including Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW — many of those cars collect and share data about their environment as they are being driven, allowing Mobileye to continually update its maps.
With better mapping, Mobileye will be able to more rapidly scale AVs across multiple cities, CEO Amnon Shashua tells Axios.
Yes, but: Mobileye, which recently started testing AVs in New York, still has a long way to go with its self-driving technology, notes Ramsey.
The bottom line: With HD maps, though, at least they know where they're headed.