Audi, Daimler and BMW are using Nokia’s old tech to map the connected car’s future

Last year Audi, Daimler and BMW bought Nokia’s Here maps service for $3.1 billion, shocking both the automotive and tech worlds in the process. Now, after watching the service in action, it’s clear why Germany’s carmakers have teamed up – they intend to harness the power of Big Data for driverless cars.

While sensors are great for telling us about the road, the end game for autonomous cars relies on communication between the cars and the infrastructure they’re driving on. Connected cars will be able to connect to traffic lights rather than rely on cameras and sensors to read them, making the autonomous technology safer and more robust. Equally, car-to-car tech will allow vehicles to share data when approaching junctions or traffic lights – eventually removing the need for sensors entirely. In recent years, this sort of tech has been put on the back-burner, overtaken by sensor-based systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot – but now Audi, BMW and Daimler have made it closer than ever.

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The power of the swarm

At an event in Munich last week, Audi showed us its Here service working with small autonomous units that actually share a lot of technology with Audi’s own piloted drive cars. So what’s so important about Here, and what’s it got to do with the swarm? First, it’s important to stop thinking of Here as a simple mapping service, because it does so much more than that. Sure, it provides highly detailed maps of roads, but it also acts as cloud of crucial data. Here has several layers: the first is a HD map – essential for autonomous tech – but on top of that is a range of more dynamic, intelligent data sourced from cars all over the local area, and from city infrastructure. And it’s these layers that make Here so powerful.

To illustrate the benefits of the Here service’s swarm intelligence, Audi set up a quaint model road system, complete with a car park and several autonomous model cars. Placed above the demonstration, a screen powered by Here showed the position of each car, along with information uploaded by each vehicle. As each car drove autonomously around the track, Audi technicians were able to demonstrate how each car could upload crucial information to the Here cloud, benefitting the rest of the traffic.

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In one demonstration, a broken-down car was able to display its status to other vehicles, allowing them to take evasive action or change their route entirely. In another, a car scanned a car park for free spaces, and made the information available to other connected cars. Although it ended up driving past, the information it gathered was used by another road user that simply slotted into the free space. But the best thing about this tech? Eventually it’ll eliminate the need for traffic lights and road signs altogether.

Car-to-X tech

At the same event, we saw how Here can benefit Car-to-X technology, which allows smart city infrastructure and systems to talk to cars. Using the same setup as before, we saw smart speed zones made on the fly, just by using the Here service. After changing the speed limit of each part of the road network, each autonomous car adjusted their speed as required. It may not be as glamourous as car-to-car tech, but this kind of technology will be invaluable to cities of the future when dealing with accidents, or areas of congestion.

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The ultimate version of driverless cars

Like any cloud-based service, Here will need some serious clout and scale to work – but it’s looking in great shape. Remember, this technology won’t just be on every new Audi, it will also be on every new BMW and Mercedes-Benz – and there’s always the possibility of other manufacturers joining the scheme.

In the past few years, two clear versions of driverless tech have been offered up by car companies. Sensor-based systems use existing infrastructure and represent an intelligent stopgap for driverless tech, while connected cars represent the ultimate solution to the autonomous problem. The only issue? It felt like they’d take forever to get here. However, thanks to Here, the ultimate form of driverless technology is quickly becoming a reality – and we have Nokia of all companies to thank.

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