SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the hallmarks of Google Maps is its ability to tap into sensor-filled smartphones, which, by showing how quickly traffic is moving, enable Google to suggest a route and a projected arrival time with a high degree of precision.
If a $300 smartphone with a handful of sensors can manage such as feat, imagine what a $30,000 car with hundreds of sensors could do when paired with a really good map.
Radar and cameras now used for cruise control and blind-spot monitoring could detect open parking spaces in real time and beam that information to the cloud. Temperature sensors and automatic windshield wipers could deliver block-by-block weather updates better than any meteorologist's forecast.
This type of robust, real-time status report is what some technology visionaries call a "reality index," and this idea -- to turn ordinary cars into mobile windows on the world around them -- is one of the big reasons Audi, BMW and Daimler joined forces this year to buy the mapping company Here from Finnish telecom company Nokia.
"We want to enable Here to create the world's best reality index. That is our vision," Klaus Froehlich, BMW's board member for development, told reporters at an event here last week after the $2.8 billion acquisition was completed. "The index knows what happens, where it happens, in that real moment. It's not something virtual; it is a representation of the real world."
Here, known as Navteq until its 2012 rebranding, is the dominant supplier of maps for in-dash navigation systems. It now has hundreds of electronics-laden cars traversing the roads of the U.S. and Europe to build high-resolution 3-D maps that would tell autonomous cars what to expect as they drive down the road.
Audi, BMW and Daimler came to see Here as an important ally in the development of autonomous driving. So when Nokia disclosed plans to sell the business, the three automakers seized on the opportunity to acquire it, lest it fall into unfriendly hands.
The three German automakers have invited American and Asian automakers to share the reality index. This fall, they introduced a "sensor ingestion protocol" -- essentially, a common language vehicles would use to send reports to the cloud.
"There is enormous potential even from starting with Audi, BMW and Daimler cars only," Froehlich said. "But the more data is included, the better the map will become.
"And that's the reason why all customers -- automotive, enterprise and consumer -- are invited to join and benefit. This is not just for us."
Here claims an 80 percent market share for in-dash navigation, but its smartphone app and website are far behind Google Maps in popularity. Peter Steiner, the electronics chief at Audi, said the new owners want Here to thrive beyond cars.
"The reality index is what we need as a car industry," Steiner said. "If we're going to let our cars drive autonomously, we need real-time information from the world.
"But," he added, "the world also needs such a reality index."