Navigant Research Blog

High-Accuracy Mapping: An Opportunity for the Post Office?

Sam Abuelsamid — June 23, 2015

Synergy is one of the most overused and abused words in business. Whenever this word is uttered, it’s time to break out a big hunk of salt. However, at the recent TU-Automotive Detroit conference in Detroit, an actual synergistic opportunity popped up in the course of discussion. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—and by extension, other postal services globally—could play an important role in the future of automated driving. According to Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report, nearly 95 million vehicles with some autonomous capability will be on the world’s roads by 2035.

High-Resolution and High-Accuracy Mapping

One of the most common topics to arise during the 2-day gathering of people involved in automated driving and connectivity was the need for high-resolution and high-accuracy mapping data. Alain De Taeye, management board member at TomTom, gave a keynote presentation on the requirements for highly automated driving systems. While sensors including a global positioning system (GPS) that can detect the immediate surroundings are clearly a critical component, they are insufficient for robust automated control. Maps can help extend visibility well beyond the line of sight of either the driver or sensor system.

More importantly, the combination of high-definition 3D maps and sensors enables greater capability than either on its own. For example, GPS sensors are notoriously unreliable in the urban canyons where automated vehicles offer some of their most important potential benefits. As satellite signals bounce around off tall buildings set closely together, a GPS-only system often places the user far from their actual location. On the other hand, cameras and LIDAR sensors can contribute to a fused real-time map of the surroundings that can be correlated with stored maps for validation and provide more accurate and precise location information.

De Taeye discussed the sources of data used by TomTom and other map providers, including HERE and Google. By blending data from satellite imagery, government data, real-time crowdsourced information, and fleets of vehicles that traverse the actual roads, maps are constantly updated. De Taeye emphasized the need for continuous updates on road information to ensure accuracy as well as precision, which is where the USPS could come to the rescue. Even companies as large as Google have practical limits on how frequently they can drive down each road.

Capturing Data with Future USPS Vehicles

Ryan Simpson, an electrical engineer with the USPS, attended the conference to learn about some of the new technologies that could potentially be put to use in future service vehicles. With more than 150,000 daily delivery vehicles and another 100,000 vehicles of various form factors, the USPS has the largest commercial vehicle fleet in the world. Those 150,000 delivery vehicles traverse a huge proportion of the roads in the United States 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. The USPS is currently in the process of defining a next-generation delivery vehicle to replace its rapidly aging fleet. If the new vehicles were equipped with some cameras and sensors, they could capture data with much higher frequency than any of the existing mapping companies. Real world data about everything, including road construction, bridge problems, and even potholes, could be updated daily.

Given the persistent financial difficulties of the USPS, providing fresh and reliable navigational data to mapping companies could provide a significant revenue stream that helps support a very important service to the U.S. population. At the same time, such data would also help to enable automated driving systems. This would be genuine synergy.

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