Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time

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From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic inventions have long been an undervalued basis in geopolitics and everyday life. Along with route finding, the use of maps became the basis for World War II. Propaganda maps were used to influence popular opinion and mobilize the army. Instagrammers and TikTokers use them to get to the hottest restaurants. In their latest incarnation, high-precision maps will change the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data-gathering.

At the forefront is a little-known Japanese start-up – Dynamic Map Platform Co., or DMP. Backed by government-backed funds, the organization (1) has multibillion-dollar mandates to support next-generation industries and counts large domestic conglomerates such as Toyota Motor Corporation among its shareholders.

DMP is creating and building a set of high-definition and three-dimensional maps that are more accurate than the standard maps we know: those on iPhones, apps like Waze, and in-car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for precision drone flight.

Data collection is key. The likes of Intel Corp.-owned Mobileye depend on crowdsourced information from participating manufacturers’ cars (which they collect automatically and anonymously). A Japanese firm’s strategy allows for ownership and greater precision. Data is accurate – distances and locations within centimeters. Other mapping systems rooted in the World Geodetic System rely heavily on approximation and sensors. It can be very annoying when Google Maps gets thrown in dense areas, or when it sends you in all sorts of directions and doesn’t recognize U-turns.

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Additionally, sourcing data from others – like car manufacturers – risks privacy and storage issues. Or, those details are not available from third parties. Self-generated information is more secure.

Creating these maps is a massive, technical effort. Precise locations are determined using the Global Navigation Satellite System or GNSS. Then, vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras collect and generate point-cloud data — or a group of points, where each has a set of Cartesian coordinates (think x-axis and y-axis). A mapping system brings everything together and integrates information. It picks up everything, including roads, structures, curbs, lane connections and signs painted on curbs, before drivers even get to a location.

It may seem like a lot of deep technology and a lot of redundant information, but mapping and data collection is central to 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 driven the boom in auto 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 from the University of Texas Radionavigation Lab is tapping signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite. GPS, a navigation technology freed from the geopolitics of Russia, China and Europe.

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High-definition and accurate maps finally allow people to visually immerse themselves in a distant place. Analysts and academics are using satellite imagery and other geo-locating data to see what’s happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds use it to track activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open source intelligence has helped track troop movements in Ukraine. Three-dimensional mapping systems such as DMP will eventually allow logistics organizations to use 3D building and street maps to deliver packages through windows and navigate through warehouses. This allows electric vehicles to be more efficient with accurate information about gradients, lanes and chargers. Today’s cartography is more powerful than it was decades ago.

To date, DMP has data on 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) of highways and motorways, about 640,000 kilometers in Japan and more than 300,000 kilometers in Europe. In 2018, it acquired Ushr Inc., which at the time counted GM Ventures and Enertech Capital as investors. Together, the two organizations supported $100 million in expansion of high-definition coverage in North America with JOIN, one of the Japanese government funds. Meanwhile, last year, DMP and JOIN put about $90 million into expanding beyond North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and hopes to become a key tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors Co., including the CT6, XT6, and Hummer, known for their semi-autonomous systems. Cadillac models have these maps installed.

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As geopolitical tensions simmer, mobility innovations increase and people travel more, maps are essential. Crucially, data accuracy – and increasingly, its ownership – is important and the basis for further cartographic advances.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• US Can Protect Taiwan From China – At High Cost: Tobin Harsha

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

• Tesla can drive itself by 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 reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. He covers industries including policies and institutions in the machinery, automobile, electric vehicle and battery sectors across Asia Pacific. Previously, he was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and a finance and markets reporter for the paper. Prior to that, he was an investment banker in New York and London

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