Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Map maker, map maker, make me a map

I have absolutely no sense of direction. If there’s a 50-50 chance that the right turn is the right one, I’ll take the left turn, thank you, 100% of the time. When, at age 16, I got my license, I was smart enough to take a weekend dry run to my high school before I cadged the car on a school day. This was at the end of junior year, so I’d been to Notre Dame Academy every day for three school years. Nonetheless, I got bollixed up somewhere near the residence of the bishop of Worcester. (I guess I could have turned around in his drive way…) I once got lost walking around Charlestown with my niece Caroline. We were heading to a restaurant where I’d been easily a dozen time. Just couldn’t find the darned thing.

I’m always amazed when other people demonstrate an unerring sense of direction. My niece Molly is one of these people. It’s really pretty incredible. She’s just got the direction mojo totally absent in her aunt. Another directionally-gifted person is my friend Kathleen. She didn’t have any problem finding our high school in her car. Sure, she lived closer to school than I did. Still…

What I can do, however, is read a map. Which sometimes doesn’t work around here, given that there are so many streets that lack signage.

Anyway, once we get into the realm of autonomous (self-driving) cars, those cars are going to need a really good sense of direction. And they’re going to need really good maps.

Civil Maps, a California start-up, just announced that Ford is one of five investors pumping $6.6 into its fuel tank so that they can develop 3-D maps for all those autonomous cars that will be zooming our way any decade now.

The startup uses artificial-intelligence software to aggregate raw 3-D data from sensors on self-driving cars to create highly detailed maps used to direct autonomous vehicles. Civil Maps said its format uses less data, reducing the cost of transmission over cellular networks. That lets the technology provide more real-time road data gathered through crowd-sourcing traffic information from other cars. (Source: Bloomberg)

I am, of course, trying to wrap my head around how a self-driving car is going to know where it’s going to begin with, before it can start generating the “highly detailed maps” that will tell it where to go.

And Civil Maps description of what they do wasn’t a big directional help, either:

Civil Maps provides self-learning cognitive perception systems that replicate human context to enable machines to perceive, orient and respond to the physical world. By combining localization technology and artificial intelligence, we are creating a new generation of maps that enable fully autonomous vehicles to traverse any road safely and comfortably without any human intervention. Civil Maps is working with leading automotive customers and partners across the world to rapidly bring fully autonomous vehicles to market at continental scale. (Source: Civil Maps)

Need to know basis only, I guess.

I do like that “continental scale” bit in there, however. Is this replacing plain old vanilla “scale”, a jazzier version with no meaning? Something that just sounds classier and more hype-y than “large”? Like when we used to write about “state of the art”, “world-class,” and “tier one.” Continental scale. Gotta love marketing.

Or maybe, in a nod to car world, they mean Lincoln Continental scale. I’ll have to ask Matthew McConaughey next time I see him. (Alright, alright, alright.)

Anyway, what I think is going on is that there’ll be a baseline map out there – kind of like a Google map – but that it will be static. It won’t necessarily know that one lane is closed for construction. So data will be crowd-sourced in real-time from all the autonomous cars on the road. Maybe human-operated cars will contribute to the knowledge base as well. (Humans like crowd-sourcing, too. Everyone likes to feel wanted. Everyone wants to be asked.)

Me? I’m not especially looking forward to self-driving cars. I don’t drive that often, but when I do, I actually like to drive drive.

Still, it will be a relief to get in a car and not worry about how I’m going to get to where I want to go. Even though I do have reasonably high confidence that I could, in fact, find my way to high school.



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