Making a driverless map, like making a driverless car, is a laborious task. Fleets of autonomous test cars, loaded with expensive lidar sensors and cameras, go out into the world with human backup drivers and capture their surroundings. Plotting the results helps train the next fleet, which will still have safety drivers at the wheel-- and, in some cases, scores of additional humans sitting behind computer monitors to catalog all the footage.
It's an expensive ordeal with a payoff that's years, if not decades, away. "Even if you could drive your own vehicles around and hit every road in the world, how do you update?" asked Dan Galves, a spokesman for Mobileye. "You'd have to send these vehicles around again."
Unlike conventional digital maps, self-driving maps require almost-constant updates. The slightest variation on the road -- a construction zone that pops up overnight, or a bit of debris -- could stop a driverless car in its tracks. "It's the freak thing that happens that's going to make autonomous not work," said McNally, the analyst.
Mobileye argues that it's more efficient and cost-effective to let the cars we're driving today see what's ahead. In January, the Intel Corp. unit announced a "low-bandwidth" mapping effort, with its front-facing camera and chip sensor that it plans to place in 2 million cars this year. The idea is to get cars to view such things as lane makers, traffic signals and road boundaries, letting them automate some driving.
Mobileye says this will take less computing horsepower than building a comprehensive HD map of the roads would; Mobileye's Galves said the company will pair its sensor data with the maps from navigational companies and, over time, create a map that a fully driverless car could use.
That's also the tactic of Google's longtime mapping foes: HERE and TomTom NV. These two European companies have positioned themselves as the primary alternatives to Google Maps, selling the dashboard screen maps to automakers today. Yet these "static" maps see only broad street shapes and capture snapshots in time. Now both companies are working on replacement products: "dynamic" maps that represent lanes, curbs and everything else on the road. The hope is that car manufacturers will stick with old-guard mapmakers as vehicles move from somewhat intelligent to fully automated vehicles without steering wheels.
HERE, owned by a consortium of German automakers, has a few examples on the road. Its mapping system enables limited hands-free driving for Audi AG, one of its co-owners, and plans to support safety features this year for Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, another co-owner. (Intel also took a 15 percent stake in HERE last year.)
Tesla Inc. is embracing the incremental march toward autonomous driving with its driver-assistance software, Autopilot. Tesla relies on cameras and sensors on its vehicles but has eschewed lidar. The company hasn't disclosed what mapping service it's using for Autopilot, and a company representative declined to comment. Tesla had a nasty public split with Mobileye two years ago.
But Tesla has leaned on at least one other company, Mapbox Inc., to help assemble its maps. Tesla paid $5 million to Mapbox for a two-year licensing deal in December 2015, according to a regulatory filing. Mapbox has mostly sold its location data to apps such as Pinterest and Snapchat. Fresh off a $164 million financing round, the startup has started to inch into automotive maps. Through its software installed on phones, Mapbox said it has plotted some 220 million miles of road data globally.
"We have more sensors on the road today than the entire connected car space will have by 2020," said CEO Eric Gundersen. Its pitch to carmakers is to use that location data as a base layer for future maps -- pairing it with camera systems, such as Mobileye's, or their own sensor data. And like other companies targeting automakers, Mapbox is happy to play neutral and work with anyone. "We don't know who is going to win," Gundersen said.