Self-Driving Vehicles: The Newest Role for Maps?

Maps were used for many things throughout the centuries. In the coming years, maps will tell self-driving cars when to turn left and right, where to exit an interstate and where to park. That might not have quite the romantic appeal of the analog devices from previous centuries, but the newest maps will provide significant economic gain, and seem likely to capture their own place in history.

The occasion for all this verbosity? That would be a deal this week that involves Microsoft, Intel and Softbank, along with a mapping startup called Mapbox. As described by Reuters this week, Mapbox has partnered with those organizations to “deepen its push into providing maps for self-driving cars.”

It seems obvious, but bears repeating: Self-driving cars rely on chips, software and digital versions of maps to serve as at least temporary replacements for human hands, feet, eyes and brains.

As for Mapbox, it “does not make a mapping app itself,” Reuters reported. “It instead competes against Alphabet Inc.’s Google Maps and HERE Technologies, the map firm owned by a group of companies, to provide the underlying maps inside of other apps. Mapbox maps are found in Snap Inc.’s messaging app and the Instacart grocery delivery app.”

There is big money in Mapbox’s type of business. SoftBank — with its Arm Holdings chip unit in this deal — is part of a group of investors that has, so far, raised $228 million for Mapbox, which is based in Washington, D.C. Another recent report says SoftBank gearing up to invest $2.25 billion in the General Motors (GM) self-driving unit Cruise, in what appears to be validating GM’s position in autonomous driving.

“Our main focus has been in making maps for humans,” Mapbox CEO Eric Gundersen told Reuters. But maps for self-driving cars are read by the cars’ computers and need more detailed data, he said.

The maps for self-driving cars would no doubt confound even the most imaginative explorers of old. According to Reuters, “One of Mapbox’s products is software that lets either a mobile phone or a car’s computer see the road as the car drives, picking out things like lanes or speed-limit signs. The company said it will weave that software together with an offering from Microsoft.”

Such mapping technology can enable drivers in the car to see “real-time events like speed limit changes,” the report added. Data collected by the technology can flow to Microsoft computers over the cloud, where algorithms work on all that information in an ongoing effort to improve navigation for self-driving vehicles.

As many people focus on the bigger picture of self-driving experiments — for instance, the recent killing of a pedestrian by an Uber self-driving vehicle in Arizona — meaningful progress is happening behind the scenes. Intel, part of the Mapbox partnership, announced in May a deal that has its Mobileye unit an Israel-based firm acquired last year for $15.3 billion  supplying an unnamed European auto maker with enough self-driving technology for 8 million cars. Financial terms were not disclosed.

In fact, Mobileye and Mapbox are working together for a stronger position in the developing world of self-driving technology.

“Mobileye is building its own detailed database of road features that is stored in the cloud,” Reuters said. “Mapbox has built software that will live in cars to beam down Mobileye’s data, without hogging up mobile data bandwidth. Cars that use the system will get a constant map ahead of about 200 meters (660 ft), providing a key backup to the car’s on-board sensors.”