From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic innovations have long been an underappreciated mainstay in geopolitics and everyday life. Besides wayfinding, the use of maps underpinned World War II. Propaganda maps were used to influence popular opinion and mobilize troops. Instagrammers and TikTok-ers use them to get to the hottest restaurant. In their latest reincarnation, high-precision maps stand to change the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data-collection.
At the forefront is a little-known Japanese start-up — Dynamic Map Platform Co., or DMP. The firm, supported by government-backed funds,(1) has multibillion dollar mandates to support next-generation industries, and counts large domestic conglomerates like Toyota Motor Corp. amongst its shareholders.
DMP is creating and building a set of high-definition and three-dimensional maps that are far more accurate than the standard ones we know: Those on iPhones, applications like Waze and in-car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for accurate drone flights.
Data collection is key. The likes of Intel Corp.-owned Mobileye depend on crowdsourced information from participating manufacturers’ cars (they automatically and anonymously collect it). The Japanese firm’s strategy allows ownership and high precision. The data is exact — distances and locations within centimeters. Other mapping systems, routed in the World Geodetic System, tend to be approximate and rely heavily on sensors. It’s hugely irritating when Google Maps gets thrown off in dense areas, or when it sends you in all sorts of directions and doesn’t recognize U-turns.
In addition, sourcing data from others — like car manufacturers — risks running into privacy and storage issues. Or, that details from third parties become unavailable. Self-generated information tends to be more secure.
Creating these maps is a massive, technological endeavor. Using the global navigation satellite system, or GNSS, exact locations are determined. Then, vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras collect and generate point-cloud data — or a group of points, where each one has a set of Cartesian coordinates (think X-axis and Y-axis). The mapping system brings it all together and integrates the information. It picks up everything, including signs painted on roads, structures, curbs, lane linkages and edges, even before drivers have gotten to a spot.
This may seem like too much deep-tech and a lot of unnecessary information, but mapping and data collection are increasingly at the center of navigation and security technology. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest tech events on the calendar, software-centric vehicles and autonomous-driving systems were all the rage. They have driven a boom in auto-tech and intelligent vehicles. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields and cockpits, taking passengers to their destinations seamlessly. In China, the rapidly expanding market for such cars is expected to grow to 960 billion yuan ($141 billion) by 2025. In the US, a team at the University of Texas’s Radionavigation Lab is tapping into signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite to create a navigation technology that’s free from the geopolitics of GPS, Russia, China and Europe.
High-definition and precision maps will eventually allow people to visually immerse themselves in a distant place. Increasingly, analysts and academics are using troves of satellite imagery and other geo-locating data to see what’s happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds use this too, to track activity at factories and warehouses. In recent months, open-source intelligence helped trace troop movements in Ukraine. Three-dimensional mapping systems like DMP’s will eventually allow logistics firms to deliver packages through windows as society ages, by using 3D building and street maps, and navigate through warehouses. It’ll also allow electric vehicles to be more efficient with precise information on gradients, lanes and chargers. The cartography of today is even more powerful than it was decades ago.
So far, DMP has data for over 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) of highways and motorways in Japan, around 640,000 kilometers in the US and more than 300,000 kilometers in Europe. In 2018, it acquired Ushr Inc., which counted GM Ventures and EnerTech Capital as investors at the time. Together, the two firms backed a $100 million into the expansion of high-definition coverage in North America, along with one of the Japanese government funds, JOIN. Meanwhile, last year, DMP and JOIN put in around $90 million to expand beyond North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and hopes to become a key tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac models, including the CT6, XT6, and the Hummer, known for their semi-autonomous systems, have installed these maps
As geopolitical tensions simmer, mobility innovation ramps up and people travel more, maps are all but essential. Crucially, data precision — and increasingly, its ownership — will matter and underpin further cartographic advances.
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(1) Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development, or JOIN, and Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, or INCJ
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She covers industrials including policies and firms in the machinery, automobile, electric vehicle and battery sectors across Asia Pacific. Previously, she was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and a finance & markets reporter for the paper. Prior to that, she was an investment banker in New York and London
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