A company called Here, the auto industry's biggest supplier of navigation maps, is preparing to roll out the next generation of route guidance: so-called smart maps that can help drivers save fuel and avoid accidents.
The maps provide data about a road's precise slope to the vehicle's onboard computer, which sets the cruise control system and adjusts the throttle accordingly. The technology is another step toward hands-free driving.
Here, a Chicago subsidiary of Nokia Corp., supplies such maps to Scania, Daimler Trucks and other commercial truck makers. Now, Here is adapting its smart, or 3-D, maps for light vehicles.
"We've made these maps for years," said Ogi Redzic, Here's vice president of connected driving. "Now, cars can take much more data. You'll see these maps [in light vehicles] in the next few years. This is imminent."
Navigation maps for light vehicles already use 3-D illustrations to represent buildings and other landmarks. But Here's next-generation 3-D maps are designed for vehicles' predictive cruise control, a system that adjusts the engine and transmission for optimum fuel economy based on the road ahead.
With access to map data about the road's grade and elevation -- as well as stoplights, speed limits and other factors -- the onboard computer could shift gears and speed to operate the car more efficiently and safely.
If smart maps catch on, the trend could cement Here's status as the auto industry's dominant navigation mapmaker.
Here estimates that it provides 85 percent of the maps used in vehicles worldwide. Like rival Google, the company sends fleets of vehicles equipped with lidar, or laser radar sensors, to record the twists and turns of every street in North America.
Now Here has developed the ability to calculate each road's curvature and grade. "As lidar gets better, our maps get more granular," Redzic said.
In its financial report issued in October, Here disclosed that it has teamed with Mercedes-Benz to develop smart maps. Redzic, in his interview with Automotive News, did not disclose details of Here's future projects with the German automaker.
But during the Detroit auto show, Mercedes-Benz development chief Thomas Weber said his company is developing a predictive cruise control feature.
Weber told Bloomberg News that the feature would allow the vehicle's onboard computer to adjust engine revs and transmission gears to anticipate conditions on the road ahead.
Mercedes offered a glimpse of this technology in August, when it sent an autonomous S500 sedan with a 3-D map developed by Here along a 62-mile route from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany.
Meanwhile, Continental AG said in January that it has signed an agreement with Here to develop 3-D maps for autonomous vehicles.
According to Continental, the maps will note lane markings, speed limits and other road conditions. Vehicles would use this information to adjust speed automatically, choose alternate routes and even adjust headlights at night.
Continental and Here view smart maps as a key technology needed for fully hands-free driv-ing. As automakers introduce vehicle-to-vehicle communications, each car will use smart maps to plot the location of other cars.
All properly equipped vehicles "will know exactly where I am," Redzic said. "My car can say, 'I'm here and you are there.'"