Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time

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From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic innovations have long been an underappreciated staple of geopolitics and everyday life. In addition to wayfinding, the use of maps fueled 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 restaurants. In their latest incarnation, high-precision maps are changing the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data collection.

At the forefront is a little-known Japanese startup – Dynamic Map Platform Co., or DMP. Backed by government-sponsored funds, the company has multibillion-dollar mandates to support next-generation industries, while Toyota Motor Corp. Large domestic conglomerates such as are counted among its shareholders.

DMP creates and builds a suite of high-resolution and 3D maps that are much more accurate than the standard ones we know: those on iPhones, apps like Waze, and in-car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for accurate drone flights.

Data collection is key. Intel Corp. Owned by Mobileye, they rely on crowdsourced information from participating manufacturers’ cars (which they collect automatically and anonymously). The Japanese company’s strategy allows for ownership and high precision. Data is accurate – distances and locations in centimeters. Other mapping systems, moving within the geodetic system, are approximate and rely heavily on sensors. Google Maps gets extremely annoying when it throws off dense areas, or when it sends you in different directions and doesn’t recognize U-turns.

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In addition, sourcing data from others – such as car manufacturers – is vulnerable to privacy and storage issues. Or, the details are not available from third parties. Self-generated information is more secure.

Creating these maps is a massive, technical effort. Exact positions are determined using the Global Navigation Satellite System or GNSS. Then, the vehicles, equipped with sensors and cameras, collect and generate point-cloud data—or sets of points that each have a set of Cartesian coordinates (think X-axis and Y-axis). The mapping system brings it all together and integrates the information. It captures everything, including roads, structures, curbs, lane connections and signs painted on edges, even before drivers arrive at a location.

This sounds like too much deep technology 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 brought a boom in autonomous technology and intelligent vehicles. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields, and cockpits, seamlessly taking passengers to their destinations. 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 Radionavigation Laboratory is tapping signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite to create GPS is a navigation technology freed from the geopolitics of Russia, China and Europe.

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High-resolution and accurate maps finally allow people to visually immerse themselves in a remote location. Increasingly, analysts and academics are using satellite imagery and other geo-located data to see what’s happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds also use it to track activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open-source intelligence services have helped track military movements in Ukraine. 3D mapping systems like DMP will eventually allow logistics companies to use 3D building and street maps to deliver packages through windows and navigate through warehouses. It also allows electric vehicles to be more efficient with accurate information about grades, lanes and chargers. Cartography today is much more powerful than it was a few decades ago.

So far, DMP has data for 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) in Japan and about 640,000 kilometers in the United States 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 companies contributed $100 million to expand high-definition coverage in North America, along with JOIN, one of the Japanese government funds. Meanwhile, last year DMP and JOIN invested about $90 million to expand beyond North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and is expected to become a key tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors’ Cadillac models, CT6, XT6, and Hummer, known for their semi-autonomous systems, have these maps installed.

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As geopolitical tensions ease, mobility becomes more innovative, and people move more, maps are all but essential. Crucially, data accuracy – and increasingly its ownership – is important and will underpin further cartographic advances.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• US Can Protect Taiwan From China – At Big Cost: Tobin Hershaw

• Afraid of driverless cars? China has the answer: Anjani Trivedi

• Tesla May Be Out of the Running: Gary Smith

(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 columnist on Bloomberg. She covers industries including policies and companies in the machinery, automotive, electric vehicle and battery sectors across the Asia Pacific region. Previously, she was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and the paper’s finance and markets reporter. Before that, she was an investment banker in New York and London

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