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Tech Trends

Mapping a Driverless World

The era of driverless cars is just around the corner, and automakers worldwide are vying for pole position. They've been refining the tools self-driving vehicles need to analyze their surroundings, and now, the race is on to set a new standard for navigation maps.

Software engineers at a firm in Nagoya are hard at work building an intricate digital landscape. They need huge amounts of data to ensure the maps contain enough detail.

They have to get the height of a curb accurate to within one centimeter. They also need to enter all kinds of details, from the gradient of each road to the radius of every turn. They mark the center of a lane with an invisible rail that keeps cars on course.

"Digital mapping is very much under the spotlight as a crucial component of self-driving technology. We think it has really big market potential."
Naoto Sato / Aisan Technology

In October, engineers from around the world gathered in Tokyo to discuss some concerns. They called on car makers to temporarily put aside their differing approaches and formulate a global standard.

Currently, there is no international standard about how precise the map information should be. That means that for export vehicles, automakers would have to install different systems to read every foreign map format. That would be a costly exercise.

Japanese carmakers export roughly half of the vehicles they make domestically.

"If Japanese auto makers are saddled with extra costs, they'll have to charge more for the cars, and that would put them at a big disadvantage. No one wants to see that happen."
Jun Shibata / Japan Digital Road Map Association

German automakers got a head start on their rivals in other countries.

Executives at BMW, Daimler, and Audi teamed up and bought one of the world's leading map makers -- a firm called Here, based in Berlin, with 200 offices across the world.

It already supplies maps for the GPS devices used by 80% of vehicles in Europe and North America. Now it's working toward a bigger goal.

"We're determined to be the leader in the development of maps for self-driving cars, as a unit of the world's leading automakers."
Christof Hellmis / Vice President, Here

Japanese automakers don't want to be left behind. They've joined a nationwide effort to catch up and overtake the competition.

Government officials are overseeing the project, which brings auto firms together with map makers and electronic device manufacturers.

"We have to have a compatible format, but we also want to ensure Japan has a competitive advantage."
Hiroaki Takada / Professor, Nagoya University

Japanese automakers know time is of the essence. They're going all out to win a race that could have a big impact on their industry.

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