Car companies to create sophisticated maps for self-driving cars

The era of self-driving cars in everyday life is just around the corner. “In 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games, self-driving cars will probably be running around the city,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an international conference in October last year.

One prerequisite for driverless cars is a highly accurate map. Self-driving cars have sensors, but objects such as a distant traffic light or road signs are hard to detect. Finely detailed maps will allow autonomous cars to anticipate road conditions and help passengers get a handle on the weather.

Competition in the mapping business is therefore heating up in Japan and elsewhere.

To navigate safely, autonomous cars need to know exactly where they are, down to a few centimeters, and where to go next. Maps used in car navigation systems are not sufficiently accurate to pinpoint a vehicle’s location to within a meter.

Complicated plot

Of course, a map is only as good as the data that goes into making it. Mitsubishi Electric has developed a data-collection vehicle, dubbed the Mobile Mapping System, or MMS, equipped with GPS receivers and laser scanners. The car shoots laser beams at roads and buildings as it moves down the street, plotting data points on a 3-D graph. Combined with GPS location data, it provides the building blocks for a detailed map.

“The system can make a survey efficiently and easily by simply driving, and help determine locations to within a few centimeters,” said Yasuhide Shibata, deputy general manager of the company’s planning and administration department.

The technology also uses information from a quasi-zenith satellite that operates in geosynchronous orbit over Japan. The satellite can pinpoint locations without signals being blocked by mountains or buildings in cities. Mitsubishi Electric plans to put up three more quasi-zenith satellites in fiscal 2018, starting in April of that year, to gather data around the clock.

Sort it out

The data is processed by Aisan Technology in response to requests from automakers and component suppliers. Urban areas are a particular challenge. Their many buildings and roads translate to a huge amount of number-crunching. To keep the data flowing smoothly, Aisan screens out extraneous information, sometime to less than one-hundredth of the original volume, leaving only essentials such as lane markings and slopes.

Zenrin, Japan’s largest maker of residential maps, is working on a system that transmits complete maps to autonomous cars in real time. Zenrin uses data gathered by vehicles, such as Mitsubishi Electric’s MMS, as well as print maps, and adds information that changes over time, such as lane markings and stop lines. A 3-D map is automatically created from these data sets and is regularly updated with information such as new roads and new traffic signs, for instance.

Increment P, a Pioneer subsidiary that develops maps for car navigation systems, has started test runs of self-driving cars in cooperation with Kanazawa University on a 60km road in Ishikawa Prefecture, in central Japan. “The purpose is to understand the necessary elements of maps for autonomous driving,” said Masaru Miura, manager of Increment P’s business promoting department. Maps are important to ensure that autonomous cars operate safely, which, in turn, is key to persuading people to buy them. The company expects to see autonomous cars operating in the region by around 2020 and is busy compiling data for its maps.

Outside Japan, other companies are working along similar lines. The Netherlands’ TomTom International plans to start supplying digital maps covering major roads in Europe and North America to automakers and others by the end of the year. Germany’s Here, which has been jointly purchased by three German automakers — Audi, BMW and Daimler — is conducting survey runs around the world.

According to Boston Consulting Group, autonomous cars, including partially autonomous vehicles with lane-keeping technology for use on highways, are expected to make up a quarter of new auto sales by 2035. “Maps will be important to complement the data collected by car sensors,” said Satoshi Komiya, senior partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group.

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