The map manufacturer TomTom has been able to hold its own in the market despite competition from Google and Here. This has also been achieved through innovations in the development of HD maps. HD maps differ from normal maps, for example those known from Google Maps, mainly in their level of detail. The maps are accurate to within a few centimetres and contain millions of waypoints. Waypoints are used in navigation world to describe stops or routes, such as street lamps or traffic lights. With the help of these waypoints, partially and fully autonomous cars should be able to navigate safely in the future.
In an exclusive interview, Bouke Douma, Director Product Marketing Automotive at TomTom, explained to us how map manufacturers are ensuring the future of mobility.
MG: Mr Douma, what do you actually need high-resolution maps for? Isn’t a combination of GPS and cameras enough for autonomous cars?
BoukeDouma: (BD): That is a good question. Typically an HD Map is used to support the automated driving system with perception, path planning and localization. Sensors have improved a lot, but they still face challenges in complex situation like heavy rain or snow. Having an HD Map helps the vehicle understand what its sensors see, and fallback on the map where needed. Another reason is that sensors only have a limited range so they can only look ahead up to a couple hundred meter. Having an HD Map can help the car to drive more safely and efficiently. Luckily, car manufacturers have also realized an HD Map is essential for a safe AD experience and we’re happy to say that 9 out of the top 10 OEM’s are actually using our HD Map to build their automated driving systems.
MG: But to know where I am, one has to keep using GPS. And that’s not very accurate with a resolution of about 5 meters.
BD: That’s true. For example_: GPS doesn’t work in a tunnel either. That’s why we use a so-called “Road DNA Suite” in our maps. We use different layers and waypoints in our maps. That can be anything. Think about the big fans hanging under the ceiling in a tunnel. Or the emergency holding bays. Or the traffic signs or the lighting. These are all data that are available on a HD map. The system can then always match the waypoints to what the camera or other sensors see. So you get a centimetre-precise navigation even without GPS.
MG: Another point is crowdsourcing with maps. Services like OpenStreetMap use user data to create maps. Isn’t that advantageous because you get data faster and the maps become more accurate?
BD: We are very open about these possibilities and look at such things naturally. There is a chance that such services can also improve our HD maps. There are quite a few worshippers who want to improve their maps with the help of the data that users collect. So dashcam images are converted into map data. But we are still a bit critical of this, because the data also needs to be validated. It is important that the software interprets the images from the camera correctly. And here we have doubts whether this is the only way to do it. We know that an AI does not always draw the right conclusions from an image.
MG: On the other hand, you also get a very up-to-date picture of the environment with the constantly and repeatedly uploaded images. Roads change daily. Sometimes there is a construction site, sometimes you remove a street sign or there are other construction measures.
BD: Our internal statistics say that about 15 percent of all roads change in the course of a year. This could be, for example, new traffic routing at an intersection if you install wider cycle paths. Crowdsourcing helps a lot in this respect, which is why we integrate such data records into our maps. At TomTom we are convinced that we need all kinds of data to keep the maps up to date. This is our data, which we update continuously, this is data from authorities, from car manufacturers and also data that users collect.
MG: Car manufacturers already collect a lot of data. Do they get access to it?
BD: We work very closely with the manufacturers of the sensors, some of whom have data. The manufacturers themselves are slowly opening up and sharing their data as well. The manufacturers also realize that without the HD maps they will not make any progress in autonomous driving. Therefore there is a lively exchange with all partners.
MG: Up to now, the map data has only been validated and processed at great expense. That costs time. Do you think there will be live updates for map data at some point, so that, for example, daytime road works on the motorway can be recorded and passed on?
BD: We already presented such a system at CES last year. The information was played into the cloud, validated there within a few minutes and immediately loaded into the vehicle’s system as an update. It is our goal to process all security-relevant data within minutes and, if necessary, pass it on immediately as an update. This is the only way autonomous vehicles can be really safe on the road.
MG: TomTom has 450,000 motorway kilometres of road on its HD maps worldwide so far. But what is the situation in the city?
BD: We are of course working on that as well. But at the same time, we are also looking at the potential applications for autonomous cars. And these will initially be found on the motorway, which is why it is important to have the best HD map material here. There will be Robotaxis in cities at some point. But there surely first in closed or geo-fenced areas. Of course they have to be mapped, but the highway has priority. We think it will take a few more years before Robotaxis will be on the road in cities all over the country.
MG: Where do you think the manufacturers stand in terms of autonomous driving?
BD: That’s hard to say. But I think that level 3 is already possible in certain driving situations. For example in traffic jams or in very slow-moving traffic. What is still missing, however, is the appropriate EU legislation. This is dragging on a bit. Level 4, that is, when the car is driven without driver supervision, is something else. We have perhaps reached 95 percent. But of course that is not enough. You need 99.99 and then a lot more nine-percent to drive safely. And that includes comprehensive HD map material.