Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crowd-sourced maps: the future of in-car navigation?

Guest post by Daniel Gast, innovation manager, Elektrobit Automotive

Crowdsourcing has become a major trend. Even McDonald’s has been getting into the act, asking consumers to submit new ideas for burgers. In 2013 the company’s “My Burger 3.0” campaign elicited an enormous response in Germany, with more than 200,000 burger ideas and more than 150,000 people voting for their favorites.

From burgers we go to a key component of navigation systems: digital maps. OpenStreetMap (OSM), a well-known and globally crowdsourced project, is dedicated to creating free worldwide maps and has attracted more than 100,000 registered contributors. These people volunteer their services, creating digital maps without being paid; take a glimpse of their work at

Why is the amount of data behind OSM constantly growing?
Creating OSM maps is a kind of charity work, open to all to contribute and to use with free licenses. The technology behind it is very user friendly, which will help ensure long-term loyalty among contributors. But probably the most important factor is the fun it brings. Contributing content to this project consists of recording streets, buildings, bridges, forests, point of interests, and other items that you would benefit from having in a map. For many OSM editors, this is their favorite hobby — they are “addicts” in the best sense of the word. They love the project and aspire to create a perfect map. That’s the reason why the growing amount of available map data is of very good quality.

Can automakers and drivers benefit from crowd-sourced map data like OpenStreetMap?
Yes, they can. Because so many people contribute to the project, the amount of data is growing continuously. Every contributor can add or edit content at any time, and changes are integrated into the public OSM database immediately.

In the beginning only streets were collected, but because the data format is extensible, editors can add data like parking spots or pedestrian walkways. For instance, a group of firemen added hydrants for their region to the map material, using OSM’s flexibility to define and add new content. Automakers could take advantage of this flexibility to integrate individual points of interest like car repair shops or to drive business models with third-party partners, such as couponing activities.

Because it’s free of charge, OSM data could, in the mid to long term, develop into a competitive and low-priced alternative to databases being provided by commercial map data suppliers.

For their part, automakers could easily provide toolkits that allow drivers to edit wrong or missing map data on the go. Or even better, allow them to personalize maps with individual content like preferred parking places or favorite burger restaurants.

Are automotive infotainment systems ready for these new kinds of map data?
From a technical point of view, automotive software like the QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment or EB street director navigation can, without modifications, interpret this new kind of data, since the OSM map data can be converted to a specific format, much like commercial map data. It’s like creating your individual burger: the bread and meat remains the same, but you opt for tomatoes instead of onions.

That said, some gaps in the OSM data must be filled before it can provide full-blown automotive navigation. Features like traffic signs, lane information, and turn restrictions are available, but coverage remains limited. Also, the regional coverage varies widely — coverage in Germany, for example, is much higher than in countries in Africa or South America.

From the automaker’s perspective, it could be an interesting challenge to encourage the community to contribute this type of content. One opportunity to support this idea is to develop an OSM-based navigation system for mobile use. After reaching maturity the system could be easily merged into the vehicle and would allow drivers to use premium directions from automotive-approved infotainment systems like EB street director — which we saw at CES in the QNX CAR Platform — for less money.

Daniel Gast has worked for Elektrobit since 2000, initially as software engineer, later as product manager for EB street director navigation. Subsequent to this he took over the responsibility for the business area navigation solutions. He now coordinates innovation management for Elektrobit Automotive. Daniel studied computer science in Erlangen.

Keep up to date with Elektrobit's latest automotive news and products by signing up for the EB Automotive Newsletter — Ed.

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