In-Car Navigation to go the Same Way as Maps

Many of us above a certain age can vividly remember when in-car mapping consisted, at best, of sheets or collections of paper.

Older drivers in Los Angeles, for example, can often tell colorful stories of wrestling with thick Thomas Guide map books while driving in an attempt to locate an unfamiliar address in the sprawling American city. What a difference a few decades make. Today, of course, in-car mapping means an almost real-time digital rendering of the driving area, typically on a video console in the vehicle’s dashboard. Or, at worst, at hand on a smartphone (cue fumbling reminiscent of Thomas Guide reaching and page flipping in the old days).

Like paper maps, though, the current versions of in-car navigational aids will seem quaint before long. The auto industry continues to march relentlessly towards autonomy; those crude digital renderings and frequently lagging update times won’t do in systems where the car does most or all of the sensing and navigating. What’s needed, naturally, are highly detailed electronic maps, updated with as little latency as possible.

Like today’s TVs, the demand these days in the navigation space is for high definition (HD) mapping. Unlike the failed money feature of TVs earlier this century, 3D mapping is also going to be a compelling proposition. This is a particularly vibrant area of development just now. Dan Hight, vice-president of business development and partnerships at NextNav, a company that concentrates on that aspect of cartography – explained that “Today’s location data is primarily latitude (x-axis) and longitude (y-axis) information. In order to have a full 3D data set, altitude (otherwise known as z-axis) data must be included.”

That’s a concept which is easy to grasp, however it’s going to take a lot to master. Such detailed, constantly-updated maps are going to require extremely quick transmission capability and “wow” levels of processing power. That takes time, not to mention gobs of capital and resources. “To create a map that will enable AV to interpret and accurately locate themselves within the environment, large data sets are needed with high resolution,” said Avi Bakal, co-founder and CEO of Israel-based sensing technology company TriEye.

There are countless items, both on the road and off, that must be sensed, processed, and rendered on the fly if a next-generation map is to successfully (not to mention safely) guide an advanced-level or autonomous car. Bakal pointed out that: “There are multiple solutions in the market that are aimed at increasing the functionality of mapping capabilities. However, there is still a gap that needs to be filled in order for autonomous and ADAS systems to properly assist drivers in the identification of visible and invisible hazards, enabling advanced systems to better ‘see’ the world in front of and around them.”

One issue that might be holding back the development of these technologies is a lack of consensus on some of the key devices that provide input for navigation systems – the vehicle’s sensors. With a vast market opportunity in front of them, sensory hardware makers have quickly developed best-in-class HD cameras, LiDAR systems, and radar to provide this vision for the car.

Yet, not everyone is on board with the full array being on board the advanced vehicle. Tesla’s Elon Musk is famously adverse to radar, to the point where the automaker has stopped including such equipment in its vehicles sold in the US. Musk, who these days often sets the pace for the next-generation auto industry, also does not believe in the potential of LiDAR to help guide ADAS and autonomous systems.

The Tesla leader feels HD cameras are sufficient for such needs. This might be because he’s got an interesting potential solution to the transmission end of the geolocation equation – his Starlink satellite network, which was famously deployed in Ukraine recently. Bob Bilbruck, CEO of digital business strategy and consultancy firm Captjur, has the radical thought that when fully in place, Starlink might even make in-car mapping obsolete.

“Yes, in today’s market of autonomous vehicles HD mapping plays a key along with redundant sensors like radar and LiDAR in powering semi-autonomous vehicles but this is going to change greatly when the SpaceX Starlink deployment is complete.” Bilbruck said that Starlink’s reach and power: “Means Tesla’s and any other car manufacturer that has a deal with SpaceX will be able to do real time location of any vehicle with this technology, thus eliminating the need for mapping of any kind.”

So, there are those who feel that instead of being a technology that continues to evolve and develop, mapping will instead go the way of the Dodo bird once we reach a certain level of assisted driving. Such is the lack of consensus. Regardless, the development of more detailed and robust mapping solutions will continue. Despite the naysayers, we’re sure to get at least some HD and 3D functionalities with lower latency times before long, whether or not satellites and high-powered cameras (or some other future, whiz-bang technology) ultimately render in-car mapping redundant entirely.

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