BERKELEY, Calif. -- John Ristevski's ride always gets attention on the street. People are bound to stop and stare at a bright blue station wagon with $80,000 worth of electronics mounted on its roof and a map of the world affixed to its side.
"It's the Google Maps car," one woman said to a friend this month as the pair walked past Ristevski's office, a few blocks from the University of California's campus.
Not quite. Ristevski works not for Google but for HERE, the maps division of Finnish telecom company Nokia. And the technology-laded wagon that he developed is playing a key role in helping automakers such as BMW and Daimler keep pace with Google in the field of self-driving vehicles.
HERE has deployed about 200 of these vehicles to build 3-D maps that could be refined into maps for autonomous driving. Over the past 18 months, they have mapped more than a million miles of roads in 30 countries on six continents, drawing new partners such as Mercedes-Benz and Continental AG, which see Nokia's maps as key to their self-driving technology.
"I think we have unique capabilities even compared to Google," Ristevski, the 38-year-old head of reality capture and processing at HERE, said in an interview at his office here.
"Google definitely has advanced technologies that they're deploying, and I think there's a potential that they could get into the space. But our other traditional competitors -- like TomTom -- are a long, long way behind."
It might seem strange for a map company to play such a key role in the development of self-driving vehicles. After all, a map cannot detect the vehicle swerving into the wrong lane, or a child who runs into the street chasing a ball.
But 3-D maps know what the cameras and sensors fitted on a vehicle are supposed to see as they drive down the road, making it easier to analyze unusual situations and steer accordingly.
This is why Google, which jolted the auto industry by revealing in 2010 that it is developing self-driving vehicles, has compiled about 2,000 miles of 3-D maps, covering its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., and many California highways.
There's a catch, though. Google won't sell its maps.