The road to self-driving cars winds through HERE

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The road to self-driving cars winds through HERE


Photo by Bloomberg News

The road to self-driving cars is laid out in 2-kilometer squares. And Here, parent of the digital mapping company formerly known as Navteq, plans to lead the way.

Its 3-D, high-definition maps capture the road—including lane markings, guardrails and signs—down to the centimeter level. These maps are read by the cars, not by human drivers. They help self-driving vehicles position themselves on the road and anticipate what’s ahead.

On a massive screen at the Arie Crown Theater, George Filley shows off the technology to 4,000 techies at the Amazon Web Services Summit. It speaks volumes about where the company is headed. “It’s a steppingstone toward automated driving,” says Filley, the Chicago-based global head of digital transportation infrastructure.

To get there, the company is pushing beyond its old boundaries of digital mapping into cloud computing and big data. A lot of that expertise is in Chicago, its U.S. headquarters, where the company employs more than 1,100 and is looking to fill 200 technology jobs, many of them software engineers and data scientists. That headcount makes Here one of the city’s most important tech enterprises.

Things appear to be looking up for Here, which was acquired for $3 billion in December by a consortium of German automakers Audi, BMW and Daimler. They hired Cisco Systems veteran Edzard Overbeek as CEO to run the Berlin-based company.

“Here is committed to Chicago,” says Aaron Dannenbring, senior vice president of the core map group and its senior local executive. “Our Chicago team is absolutely critical to our development of leading-edge technology.”

The new owners seem to be a better fit than Nokia, the Finnish cellphone and telecom-equipment maker that acquired Navteq for $8.1 billion just before the 2008 recession. What followed was a bumpy ride. Consumer GPS devices that had been the bread and butter of Navteq’s mapping business gave way to smartphones.

Fortunately, dreams of the connected car and self-driving vehicles (ironically fueled by Google and Apple, the winners of the smartphone revolution) were just taking off.

“The very fact that Here is owned by the Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz consortium puts them at the heart of the driverless action with the three of them actively testing self-driving vehicles based on its maps and technology,” says Dominique Bonte, a Brussels-based analyst at ABI Research.


George Filley - Kendall Karmanian

Photo by Kendall KarmanianGeorge Filley

If Here succeeds, Chicago has a chance to become a hub for this technology, which will drive the auto industry for the next 100 years. It also could plant a flag for Chicago to become a player in the internet of things, in which everything from people to machines is always connected to computer networks, says Fred Hoch, CEO of the Illinois Technology Association.

Over the past 30 years, the company became the top provider of digital maps to auto manufacturers. Now Here is angling to become more than a mapmaker. It aims to become one of the few platforms upon which driverless technology is built, not unlike operating systems for personal computers and smartphones.

It’s not a short trip. New high-def maps are accurate to within about 10 centimeters, not 10 meters. Here has been mapping North America and Western Europe with laser equipment for several years. That produces massive amounts of data. Filley says, “We’re talking petabytes.” One petabyte can store half the research materials at all U.S. college libraries.

Despite its head start, Here faces new competitors that have done maps for other industries, such as utilities. Among them are GeoDigital and Sanborn.

Here also will need to outhustle other companies for high-priced technical talent that is in very short supply, both locally and nationally.

Driverless cars aren’t likely to roll out in significant numbers for 10 to 15 years, according to analysts. But automakers such as Tesla, BMW and Mercedes already are offering driver-assisted vehicles with a sort of autopilot that can brake or steer to avoid crashes.

Here could present automakers an alternative to giving up a key part of their business to Silicon Valley interlopers.

“Data is one of the big currencies,” says Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst in Los Angeles at research firm IHS. “Here is positioning themselves as a platform, not necessarily owning the data.”

But to do that, the new owners will have to attract other carmakers to their consortium, as well as tech companies. Here has reportedly been talking with Amazon and Microsoft about strategic investment.

“They have a good chance of becoming a de facto standard,” says Praveen Chandrasekar, a Detroit-based director at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. He notes that “collaboration in this industry has failed nine out of 10 times. But this could be a turning point because maps are not easy.”

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