Here Be Dragons, part 2!

By | April 23, 2021
World Map, Pirî Reis, 1513, Istanbul. Courtesy Library of Topkapi Palace Museum via David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University

Traditional navigation maps get us from Point A to B. Next-generation maps for autonomous vehicles (AVs), such as those developed by DeepMap, add increased safety to our travels.

In the second post in our Here Be Dragons series, we will outline some additional — and perhaps surprising — benefits of maps that you may not have thought about.


PS: Each Here Be Dragons will highlight an ancient map from the David Rumsey Map Center. We met David through our COO, Wei Luo. Wei and David were co-interviewed for an a16z podcast, The Exploding Map, which we highly recommend.

Surprising Benefits of Maps for Autonomous Vehicles

By Brad Templeton, Guest Author

TL; DR Summary

  • While safety is the first goal of maps for AVs, there is so much more they can enable, including smoother driving and greater comfort.
  • Maps help the vehicle “understand” local rules, regulations, and driving customs.
  • Maps can improve navigation beyond what classic car/phone maps provide.
  • As described last week, good mapping is not just about drawing the shape of the road, it’s about recording a true understanding of what the attributes of the road mean.

Digital maps help a computer-driven car know where it is on the road and the geometry of the road. At their most basic level, they inform the car where the lanes are and what they mean, and how to navigate them. They let a system know what’s coming with full accuracy even before it can be seen with sensors. That’s essential if you’re going to trust your life and safety to a system.

But there’s more to driving than safety. While maps start by helping assure safe operation, they can do more for your ride, whether the car is doing all the driving or just helping you. Here are a few examples:

  • The Curve in the Road
    Knowledge of the road ahead lets a car with an HD map consider how it will turn, speed up, and slow down. The map can reveal what the shape of the road is and thus what the best speed is. When taking a curve, a car can precisely find the lane and calculate where to put itself within it to both get the best traction from its tires but also to reduce the turning forces that disturb a smooth ride. It gets perfect understanding of the lane geometry rather than constantly correcting as it figures things out on the fly.
  • Carsickness
    A recent experiment done at Volvo Cars produced an interesting result. Many people can get a little carsick when they are passengers. Carsickness is mostly caused when the balance sensors in your ears tell you a different story than your eyes. If you aren’t looking out at the horizon, that can spell trouble for many people, but it’s just what we do when we ride as a passenger staring at our phones or reading a book.In the Volvo experiment, the car had a map of the turns in the road. Before and during a turn, they had the car issue subtle sounds to let the passengers know — consciously or even unconsciously — that the turn was happening so they could prepare their minds, or even just look up. After the experiment 17 out of 20 subjects surveyed preferred the car that gave them the sound cues. In the future, some cars plan to do more than this with HD maps. Knowing the shape of the road, they will even be able to lean and tilt to reduce the motion effect as well as warn about it — even if the turns are around blind corners.
  • Potholes
    Another bane of driving is the pothole. An advanced map can record the location of all potholes. This can let vehicles pick the right lane well in advance to avoid them, and also steer gently to avoid hitting the ones in the lane being driven. Sensors can detect potholes but it can be difficult to do well in advance.
  • Local Quirks
    Around the world, there are local quirks that drivers learn over time. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first car turning left at a green light will often jump out ahead to turn before the oncoming cars get a chance to advance. Those Pittsburgh drivers know to watch out for it. Some local rules apply to a specific road or intersection. All this can go on an HD map to assure a smooth drive.
  • Regulations and Advice
    Maps will also pick up special regulations and advice only for self-driving cars. For example, if local rules should prohibit self-driving on a section of road, there’s not much value in putting that on signs, when it can just go into the map. Such rules will be dynamic, in any event, and not suitable for physical signs. While most cars are trained to read digital variable speed limit signs, eventually these will just show up in the live map as well, taking a “belt & suspenders” approach to be sure the information is conveyed reliably.
  • Robotaxi Dropoffs
    Driving is one thing, but when it comes to the end of the trip, maps will play a crucial role. We’ll rely on them to know the right places for robotaxis to drop off and pick up passengers, and even for them to coordinate so there isn’t chaos at the busy times. Maps can also tell cars safe places to pull off the road if they have problems — places that have been vetted in advance, which a car might not be so good at understanding when it’s having problems.
  • Pedestrian Warnings
    If you’re a pedestrian, you will be glad that HD maps show the location of all crosswalks, and advanced maps may also learn the other places that people cross that aren’t official crosswalks. These maps will tell the cars where to pay proper attention to the pedestrians, even on the sidewalk. Most drivers won’t worry too much about a pedestrian walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the block, but if there is a crosswalk, they can know to pay extra attention, and look for signals that the person wants to cross even before they do it. Already many teams are working on AI tools to read the body language of pedestrians, and maps can provide data to help improve that reading.
  • U-Turns are OK
    If you’ve ever navigated using a system with regular (non-HD) maps, you’ve probably noticed that they don’t think cars can turn around by making unmarked U-turns, driving into driveways, or making 3-point turns on quiet streets. So if you go the wrong way, they will route you along a crazy path when the obvious choice is to just turn around. With HD maps, the system can understand the location of all the driveways and places it’s OK to U-turn or 3-point turn to avoid that problem.
  • Ultra-Precise Positioning
    Under the hood, HD maps also assure your car always knows exactly where it is. We’ve all seen a GPS system with navigation-level maps get confused as to what road it’s on when two roads are close, or not know what lane it’s in. HD maps provide all the detail for a car to know its precise position on the road and within a lane within just a few centimeters, even when there is no GPS. That’s essential for self-driving, and pretty useful even for navigation.

An HD map means not just knowing the geometry of the road but understanding the road. It’s the difference between driving a strange road for the first time and one you’ve driven 1,000 times before. Everybody does better when they’re familiar with the territory.

* * *

About DeepMap: DeepMap is accelerating safe autonomy by providing the world’s best autonomous mapping and localization solutions. DeepMap delivers the technology necessary for self-driving vehicles to navigate in a complex and unpredictable environment. The company addresses three important elements: precise high-definition (HD) mapping, ultra-accurate real-time localization, and the server-side infrastructure to support massive global scaling. DeepMap was founded in 2016 and is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., with offices in Beijing and Guangzhou, China. Investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Accel, GSR Ventures, Generation, Goldman Sachs, NVIDIA, and Robert Bosch Venture Capital. For more information, see

Here Be Dragons, part 2! was originally published in DeepMap Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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