Navigant Research Blog

How Will Self-Driving Vehicles Find Their Way?

David Alexander — January 8, 2015

Google continues to push the technology for its autonomous vehicle, but some recent articles in the media have been more about the detailed mapping required than any of the other technologies that may be necessary for bringing such vehicles into production.  Google is not the only company interested in this angle.  Nokia’s HERE subsidiary is also putting a lot of effort into making high-definition maps that combine detail about roadways with information about traffic flow.

Google has decided that its vehicle must have a detailed map of the roads it will travel on, accurate to a few centimeters, with detailed knowledge of the exact location and height of the curbs, not just the lane markings.  Recognizing that these vehicles must also cope with construction and temporary obstacles, HERE is exploring the idea of using the cloud to store the digital map data and having it updated on a continual basis.

A Perfect Map

The concept relies on huge amounts of data being constantly uploaded and downloaded to the cloud so that all vehicles always have a highly accurate digital map of their surroundings to rely on.  While this is clearly one potential solution for the future of autonomous vehicles, it’s a concept thought up by two large companies that have already invested heavily in scanning and mapping technology.  It’s natural to find solutions that match the tools already available, and all the better if the solution requires a tool upgrade.

In a previous blog, I wrote about self-driving vehicle developments in China.  It seems to me that putting more intelligence into each vehicle, to deal with real-time traffic issues, is a more practical option than requiring a highly accurate database of all the world’s roads that is updated minute by minute.  Existing digital maps can be used to provide direction just as they do for human drivers today, and powerful, intelligent sensors can monitor the local traffic and obstacles in real time.  I suspect this is how the major automakers are moving forward with autonomous vehicle technology – and why nobody has yet jumped on Google’s offer of a partnership.

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