As automakers and technology companies hurtle forwards in the development of autonomous vehicles, with Ford among others aiming to establish fully autonomous fleets in the next decade, much of the public attention paid to technological development has focused on the radar, camera, and sensor technology necessary to create a vehicle’s sensory intelligence. However, this technology merely enables the car to guide itself. As individual vehicles are merely part of larger transportation networks, additional technology is required to govern their behavior and interactions in their wider environment.

Before the autonomous vehicles being developed by automakers can take to the road, they will require detailed maps and knowledge regarding the systems they are destined to operate in. As such, there is a great need for creating a database of highly detailed maps that will provide individual vehicles with the data necessary for them to operate safely, filling out the vehicles’ understanding of its surrounding area and, thereby, improving its safety. This task, experts say, is one of a monumental scope as the level of detail required in these maps well exceeds the detail in available maps designed for GPS systems. Furthermore, these maps must also be three-dimensional. Currently these maps are being developed primarily by the companies developing autonomous vehicles or contributing to specific pilot projects, such as Google spin-off Waymo, which has mapped the areas in and around individual cities of interest to it, and Nokia spin-off Here, mapping cities around Europe and the U.S. The process of creating these maps requires driving vehicles with advanced lidar detector units attached to them around the cities and collating all of this gathered data together with the necessary annotation—a process which Here is working to automate with algorithms.

While digital maps offer individual vehicles with information regarding their physical environment, these vehicles, nonetheless, remain essentially isolated from the rest of the traffic system around it. As such, communication networks play a crucial role in connecting the vehicles to each other and enabling the cars to react to conditions beyond the reach of its sensors or cameras. Many carmakers are currently already engaged in developing so called V2V, Vehicle to Vehicle, communication technology, but the coming advent of 5G technology is expected to enable a new generation of Vehicle to Everything (V2X) technologies. However, while vehicle makers await the development of a fixed 5G specification, these systems remain based in 4G-enabled dedicated short range communications (DSRC) technology. Once established, these 5G networks, in combination with the existing DSRC technology, will enable true freedom from existing cellular networks and allow vehicles to communicate directly and, thereby, make them suitable to rural areas as well as densely populated urban areas.

The next five years thus pose an interesting challenge for mapping and communications companies as well as the public sector in establishing comprehensive digital map databases and shared communication systems that will enable the dynamic growth of future transportation networks.

New York Times article on creating maps for autonomous traffic 

New York Times report on the communication technologies selected by various automakers 

Forbes article on vying 5G communication technologies 

Factsheet on DSRC from the U.S. Department of Transportation 

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