In the highly competitive race to get self-driving cars to the market, most companies hold their secrets close. But when it comes to helping those cars figure out where they are on the road, some experts are ready to open up.
Argo AI, based in the Strip District, and Aptiv, based in O’Hara, publicly released some of their own data sets earlier this year in an effort to further advancement in the field. The companies shared parts of their own maps of cities where they are testing self-driving cars, including Pittsburgh.
That may seem strange considering the abundance of applications like Google Maps, Apple Maps and Waze that have already made road maps public and easily accessible — and are downloaded on just about every mobile phone.
But a self-driving car can’t plug into commercially available GPS programs and be on its way, the way a human would. Instead, it needs a highly precise map to help it learn as much as possible before even starting its engine. A few feet off either way can be the difference between driving into a river or driving alongside it.
“A map is a good representation of the world the autonomous vehicle will encounter,” said Praveen Chandrasekar, senior product manager of autonomous driving at TomTom, an Amsterdam-based company that makes high-definition maps for autonomous vehicles and other machine learning projects.
Every player in the game enlists its own fleet of vehicles to drive around — and around and around again — an area of the city, capturing images and data to create a 3D representation of the world. The newly forming industry hasn’t yet worked out a single system that everyone can tap into, so they all invest resources to make their own.
Part of that is because each company’s map is specialized to its own vehicles.
But the move by Aptiv in March and Argo AI in June could open the way to a future where mapping resources are shared across the industry if only to further research in the autonomous vehicle field.
Even before accounting for the expense of building a map, it costs at least a few hundred thousand dollars to produce a prototype self-driving test vehicle, Argo AI stated in a blog post announcing its new initiative.
The equipment to make the maps comes with a steep price tag as well.
A lidar sensor, which sits on the roof of a car and collects some of the most detailed information about a road, costs anywhere between $70,000 and $1 million, said Christoph Mertz, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute.