Up-to-the-minute maps will be critical for autonomous cars
DETROIT — History’s most intrepid explorers were often at the mercy of their maps. The self-driving cars of the future won’t be any different.
It has been a real concern to me as some brands talk about having quarterly map updates, and in many cases they offer free updates for the life of the device. Now I know what goes into making map updates, especially quality data and there are hardly any countries in the world that offer data to that quality, that includes countries like the USA and Great Britain. In fact the UK said they were going to have a Government inquiry a few years ago because of the lack of quality of map data, especially outside of major cities.
You may read this and think I’m anti car nav or driver-less cars. Wrong on both counts. I don’t go anywhere without my TomTom with real time traffic. I love it. But after 8 years of working for a company that has developed some of the best quality maps available and having significant knowledge into the technological barriers, the human input (including when people in local Government get around to sharing important information) and the time it takes to drive all roads in a country. I know that we are decades from having the ability to provide data of sufficient quality to have autonomous cars safely drive outside of specific zones. I also know the cost of the technology, which is prohibitive.
Want some more reading? Try these :
- 9 Car Accidents Caused by Google Maps and GPS
- Google Street View Car Goes the Wrong Way, Causes Accident
- Poor GPS Map Data on HUD Car Nav Devices (OK this one is fictional but relevant)
- Why Do GPS Systems Give Wrong Directions
- Sat Nav Blunders Caused Up To 300,000 Accidents
- 4 Year Old Girl Dies Due to Car Nav Incorrect Instructions
- The GPS Made Me Do It NY Times
- The GPS Made Me Do It in Nashville
- Officer I can Explain
- Court Rejects the GPS Made Me Do It
- Blame the GPS
- Top Excuses When Getting Pulled Over
- 2 People Drove Into the Susquehanna
- Man Parks Car on House Roof
- High Noon in Alaska
- Who Is Responsible When Something Goes Wrong?
- Boy Racers Make Sport with Driver-less Cars (more possible futures)
- Truck Driver Wedges Semi in Tunnel
The problem is that many brands of car navigation are competing on price to the point that it isn’t physically possible for them to afford to purchase quality map data. Consider selling car nav devices for under $100 and then having the build cost of including not only quarterly updates, but also distributing them. It just doesn’t work.
A driver-less car would need to not only know the exact geometry of the roads, but also the current speed zones (which change all the time) the changes in intersection controls, such as roundabouts (rotators) to traffic lights and vice versa and much more. Some may say that cameras will take care of that, but I’ve been involved in that research as well and reading things like traffic signs is actually a complex science as well.
There are definitely areas in some cities that are pretty good but even things like temporary traffic management are constant. It’s not unusual for a smallish city to have hundreds of temporary traffic management changes, as simple as a 3 lane highway which is down to two. Then take into consideration the situation where the contractor starts a road closure early or finishes late and doesn’t notify the roading authority.
Who wants an automated car system that tells you every 5 minutes that it is approaching a location where you need to take control. If you have to be monitoring the car all the time, because at any moment it is going to slow down and say there is an obstacle ahead that isn’t in my database, then you are likely to just end up with more gridlock, if not more accidents.
This is a lot more complex than it sounds and I am concerned that the hype is overtaking the reality to a point where unrealistic expectations are being made. It truly is hard enough to find a normal car navigation system where the driver is still in control, that can be relied on for much more than general guidance.
I think the most likely scenario is that there may be certain toll roads or highways that may only be driven on in cars that meet certain standards, and outside of that, until a critical mass is reached of cars that not only have the technology with the latest map data on them ,but also that have the ability to identify changes and update a single common map data-set in real time. That may come in certain countries with cars that were designed for that country. But it won’t be cheap.
If you’d like to know a little more just about the car nav itself, check out my blog from last year by Googling What is the best GPS car nav for New Zealand. You’ll find it as the first return other than paid advertising and it will give you a little more insight. Or go here.
It’s probably time for me to road test some new models for this year. In the meantime, if you have a car navigation unit, especially one that you paid around $1-200 for, but even a top of the line unit, make a note of how often it is wrong, even slightly wrong and then think about whether you would trust that map data to totally control your car, with your family in it, while you read an eBook, newspaper or watch a DVD.
I’d love you to leave a comment on my blog about that. If there is sufficient interest, I’ll approach the nav manufacturers and do some more more road testing research.
Just for the record, I have driven with car navigation in the US, Europe, Asia Pacific and other places and I haven’t been to a single country where the nav is fully accurate. The cost of doing that is just too high. I know from direct experience.
Will it happen one day? Absolutely, at least in cities and small countries where the massive cost of real time data collection, independent from manual data input from humans into databases, is justifiable.
Detroit might have you think it is all about the technology in the cars. Trust me, that’s the easy part.
I would really welcome your comments and stories. Has car navigation ever given you an incorrect instruction that could have caused an accident, got you in trouble with the law (e.g. incorrect speed zone) or sent you in the wrong direction?