Vehicle navigation systems mapping a better way to get around

We've come a long way from the days of paper and gyroscopes — and there's still much further we can go

Navigation systems must be updated regularly, which will be even more important for self-driving cars.

Courtesy TomTom

Navigation systems must be updated regularly, which will be even more important for self-driving cars.

Vehicle navigation systems are a great way to get around, figuring out your route and guiding you through all the turns. But they need to be regularly updated, and they’re going to have to become even more sophisticated to play a vital role in the future of autonomous driving.

“There’s a big push for self-driving cars, and in the development of maps and location information,” says Harold Goddijn, president and CEO of TomTom. “There’s a whole new technology that must come together.”

Mapping it out

To make an electronic map, navigation companies work with automakers to determine the specifications required. Then it’s all about legwork. The mapmakers first go to local governments to see what maps they have, and digitize as much of these as they can. They then send employees out to drive the roads, using mobile mapping vans equipped with laser, radar and GPS to collect data, which is incorporated into the system.

Keeping it current

Once the navigation map is made, the next challenge is to keep it up to date. The company asks customers to report inaccuracies and changes, but it also watches vehicles connected to the network. TomTom can’t identify individual cars, but it sees what traffic overall is doing.

“If we see a lot of people driving on what we think isn’t a road, we look at satellite pictures to see if there’s a (new) road there,” Goddijn says. “Or when we see large amounts of cars making traffic violations because they are going down a one-way street, it’s probably something that has changed in the direction of flow.”
Right now, updating maps in existing vehicles can be a cumbersome task, but as more and more vehicles come online through wireless connections, navigation companies can download new information to them.

Self-driving cars

The next big hurdle for mapmakers is developing systems that are accurate enough that autonomous cars can use them without the driver’s assistance.

“We need to know how many lines are on the road, how many lanes there are, and 20-centimetre accuracy where an exit starts and where it ends,” Goddijn says. “We need all that to give the computer in the car the information to accurately plan its next manoeuvre, and know where it is and where it’s heading.”

This will require even more map maintenance, because while a driver can see a change in traffic patterns ahead and take a different route, an autonomous car following an outdated map might not be aware of detours due to construction or crashes.

“We’re building a self-learning and self-improving system that’s highly automated and based on machine learning and other technologies,” Goddijn says. “This will help us to make sure that the maps are accurately reflecting the reality.”


• In the 1930s, you could buy a device that attached to the speedometer and scrolled through a paper map as you drove, showing crossroads and turns.

• Honda first offered a navigation system in the 1981 Accord, which used road patterns and a gyroscope to pinpoint the car’s location.

• Cars initially used maps stored on cassettes and CDs, while Pioneer introduced a GPS system in 1990.

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