Mapping to Remain Vital Part of Auto Tech Industry

Where are you right now? Whatever the answer, your location is nearly 100% certain to be available on a digital map.

Our increasingly data-heavy world, matched with real-time applications for automobiles, has cranked up demand for e-cartography services. Like mushrooms after the rain, many providers have sprouted up from the ground to satisfy this demand and a clutch of established players are defending their turf.

However, what type of mushrooms will cover this forest? Earlier this year a noted early-stage mapping company, geocoding specialist Mapzen, shut its doors for good. Mapzen was notable for relying on open-source data for its products, leading to some worry that open-source mapping was as dead as Mapzen the company. So, are we headed along a path of strict commercialism in the world of digital cartography?

Julian Simioni, a senior software engineer at Mapzen and now CEO and founder of another open-source geocoding company, Cleared For Takeoff, unsurprisingly doesn’t believe so. Collaboration with and among members of the public “is especially important in the mapping world, where there are different unique qualities to nearly every place on earth,” he says. “Being able to gain insight from people with local knowledge from all over the globe is huge, and something that fits naturally into the open-source model. Even the largest and most well-funded companies can’t hire everyone they could conceivably use to improve their work,” he adds.

Alex Mangan agrees… up to a point. He’s director of automotive product marketing at one of the world’s busiest commercial digital cartographers, Amsterdam’s HERE. He says that “we do use open source components across our product portfolio,” but adds: “However, automotive is a business of high customization to continuously allow for differentiation, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to fully open sourced solutions. It’s important to note that automotive mapping use cases, including connected and automated vehicles, increasingly demand a level of precision and freshness.” Although the company is privately-held and doesn’t publicly release its finances, the fact that it employs over 7,200 people tells us something about its size and scope and, of course, the prominence of commercial-focused cartographers.

There’s also the fact that its majority owners (a consortium of carmakers Audi, BMW, and Daimler) paid former owner Nokia nearly $3Bn for it in 2015. The company’s investor list includes big-name participants in various aspects of assisted/autonomous driving, like Continental, Bosch and Intel. Here’s strategic alliances include tie-ups with such companies as graphics card powerhouse NVIDIA and database king Oracle. The company also has a long list of relatively smaller companies around the world it characterizes as “partners.”

Although it’s not a publicly traded business, and thus it isn’t easy to get a fix on its financials, indications are that Here has at least been successful on the operating level. According to Reuters, the company booked an operating profit of €48M in the first half of 2015; meanwhile, its full-year 2016 revenue came in at almost €1.2Bn.

Here, or one of its commercially-focused peers like Tom Tom or Google, will always be at one crucial disadvantage: unlike some entities that lean heavily (or exclusively) on open-source, it must, ultimately, make money and the ecosystem of the connected/autonomous car is already full of expensive hardware and software. Auto manufacturers and other digital mapping clients have to keep the costs of their products reasonable enough to appeal to a mass of consumers.

There’s another point in open source’s favor, says Bibiana McHugh, IT-GIS manager of Portland, Oregon’s TriMet transportation authority. Speaking of Mapzen’s Pelias geocoder solution, she says: “If we had invested in a proprietary solution, and the company folded, or was bought out (common in the transit industry), it would have resulted in a much different story. Or if a vendor suddenly hiked their maintenance fees…”

In that respect, open source offerings such as Pelias have a potentially much longer shelf life. Since they’re not proprietary, they’re at the disposal of anyone willing to incorporate them into their system and, ideally, keep them updated. Yet, open source can’t satisfy every need for a world increasingly hungry for reliable and detailed maps so, ultimately, it looks like both open-source and commercial will co-exist, and often in the systems of the same client. TriMet relies heavily on the former; McHugh says “we use OpenTripPlanner, Pelias, OpenStreetMap…, Geoserver, OpenLayers, PostGIS, JOSM, [and] numerous open APIs.” There’s also a commercial component. “We continue to use ESRI’s ArcMap for desktop mapping and analysis,” she adds.

At the end of the day the art and science of cartography is one of extreme detail and diligence. It takes many hands to make a paper, and even a digital, map. Any solution that helps produce that map, whether open-source, commercial, or a cocktail of both, has a chance at success.

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