Roomba Owner iRobot Talks About Selling Home Mapping Data (Jul 24, 2017)
Google recently got out of the satellite mapping business by selling its Skybox / Terra Bella unit to Planet Labs. That unit had mostly been working on mapping imagery, and Google clearly decided it didn’t need to do that work itself to benefit from the results, and effectively outsourced it. Now two executives from that former team have ended up at Apple, under former Dropcam exec Greg Duffy. Given that Apple has nothing whatsoever to do with satellites today, that raises some interesting questions. While it’s true that Google, Facebook, and others have invested in satellite and other new methods for getting connectivity to remote places, Apple has far less incentive to do so, because its users are typically the kind of well-connected people that can afford premium smartphones and computers, not those in remote emerging markets. And to pursue such a play in a market like the US makes little sense either given how satellite broadband has struggled to compete with wired and wireless services because of limited throughput and high latency (just ask DISH). What makes more sense is some kind of mapping play for better imagery, although even there the same logic that led Google to dump its unit would apply to Apple too. These are certainly intriguing additions to the Apple employee rolls, but I’m not yet convinced that either broadband access or mapping are the explanation here.
Cadillac takes aim at Tesla’s Autopilot with ‘hands-free’ Super Cruise technology – The Verge (Apr 10, 2017)
One of my big objections to Tesla’s Autopilot technology has always been the name, which connotes a level of autonomy the system doesn’t actually aspire to and which it certainly doesn’t deliver. Tesla has partly dealt with that issue by updating its software to require users to keep their hands on the wheel, but does little else to ensure attention, which means that even when the system performs as it should, there’s little guarantee that the human driver will. Cadillac today announced a new Autopilot-like feature but very sensibly named it in a way much more likely to give buyers and users an accurate impression of what it does, tying it to the very familiar cruise control already in almost all new cars. However, the more important thing in my view is that the system also comes with lots of protections designed to ensure that the driver does actually pay attention, which is a huge issue in situations where attention but not activity is required, such as driving a car with this kind of intelligent cruise control running. There’s a long history of scientific research in this area, and it all says that paying attention in a passive way like this is something human beings aren’t good at, and Cadillac’s new system is designed to help the driver stay attentive. The big question about this new system, though, is that although it’s being billed as LIDAR-based, it’s not using a LIDAR in the car but instead using mapping data previously generated by LIDAR, which means it’s non-real-time. That, in turn, means that if anything has changed in the road environment since the map was generated, the car won’t know about it, and GM doesn’t seem to have talked much about how frequently it’s going to update its maps of US and Canadian highways to mitigate this.
via The Verge
Google introduced its own location-sharing feature last week, but Facebook’s is far more limited – it works within the context of a Messenger interaction, and only for an hour at a time, which feels a good bit less prone to accidental over-sharing. It also feels more useful in the messaging context, where you’d be likely to share messages with someone about meeting up, than in a Maps app, which might mean dipping out of a conversation to check the location (even if it might be useful when meeting at a new spot). As I mentioned last week, it’s interesting to see location sharing making a comeback when both Google and Facebook had previously backed away from this kind of thing over privacy concerns – that suggests a certain confidence over privacy issues that wasn’t there a few years ago, although both companies still seem to be approaching this more narrowly than in the past.
Google Maps will let you share your location with friends and family for a specific period of time – TechCrunch (Mar 22, 2017)
Location sharing is one of those really thorny privacy issues, and Google has gone back and forth on it over time precisely for this reason. In this case, it’s now opening the feature back up, though now in the Google Maps mobile app, and with some sensible limits, such as time- and person-based sharing. I can see a lot of utility in sharing my location with someone temporarily if we’re planning to meet up or if I’m on my way home and want to share an ETA. On the other hand, sharing that information with friends or family members means sharing it with Google too, and presumably also means your Google Maps app has to be running and tracking your location in the background, which has battery implications. For some people, those will be non-issues, but for others they make it less palatable to use these features. And of course the more openly you share your location (and the more companies track it) the more ways there are for hackers (and law enforcement) to access it too.
My “Tech Disrupts Transportation” narrative feels particularly appropriate for this story, which really highlights the degree to which technology can radically change the way transportation operates in a city. In this case, it’s car traffic in busy cities and towns, and the way in which navigation apps have begun sending traffic through quiet residential streets and other short cuts to avoid that traffic. On the one hand, you could argue – as Google does – that the apps are doing exactly what they’re designed to do, which is to find the most efficient route at any given point in time. On the other, you can argue that they do so without taking into account the impact on the streets down which those cars will drive – the algorithms don’t seem to be programmed to avoid quiet residential streets or to make another sort of value judgments. City planners naturally don’t like this – their job is to send subtle and not so subtle signals with road layouts and traffic management schemes in order to get people to drive in a certain way, and the apps entirely ignore that. This kind of clash between technology and government officials isn’t new or unique – it’s the kind of thing that will continue to happen over and over again, and the answer usually isn’t fighting the technology but either working with it or adapting to it.
via USA Today
I’ve seen this announcement referred to as being about crowdsourcing in at least one place, and that’s exactly the wrong word to use, because this isn’t about a crowd of people at all, but about real-time data from vehicles. In contrast to crowd-sourced map data, which can easily be manipulated for humorous or nefarious ends, this is a closed-loop system in which anonymized data from BMW cars will help update HERE’s increasingly detailed and real-time maps. And that kind of up-to-the-minute map data will be critical for autonomous driving in future – it’s no good knowing what the road looked like six months ago (or even yesterday) if there’s construction, an accident, or a roadblock today. Putting this technology into one manufacturer’s new cars by itself isn’t going to generate that much data – there simply aren’t enough brand-new BMWs to be useful. But if HERE strikes similar partnerships with other carmakers, then over time it could end up with some of the best real-time map data out there. It’s a little hard to tell from HERE’s release, but the BMW/Mobileye release certainly suggests that the latter will also get to aggregate and use the data. This announcement also highlights the fact that, no matter how clever the technology from Silicon Valley startups, the companies with by far the most and best data will be the car companies and those that partner with them.
This is a big hire for Lyft, which so often plays second fiddle to Uber in so many ways. Being able to recruit a top notch mapping engineer like this away from Google is a great validation of Lyft as a company and as a recruiter specifically, and should make it easier to hire in other talent for mapping and autonomous vehicle technology at Lyft. It’s also notable that Vincent would be willing to leave Google, which obviously has far bigger and deeper efforts underway around mapping and autonomous driving than Lyft does.
This is yet another example of the new focus that’s come to Alphabet under Ruth Porat as CFO. On balance, this particular move seems smart – there’s no differentiation in owning mapping satellites per se, especially if Alphabet isn’t going to be providing Internet access with them. If it can recoup some investment and refocus its business in the process, while maintaining access to good satellite imagery and data, then it’s a win/win.
Autonomous tech supplier Mobileye wants automakers to crowdsource maps for self-driving cars – Recode (Jan 5, 2017)
Given that HERE is already owned by several of the automakers, you could make the argument that there’s a more natural player to aggregate mapping data from them, but Mobileye is making its pitch regardless. On the one hand, it’s easy to see the logic here – all the companies ultimately need basically the same data. On the other, however, these companies are fierce competitors and though they’ve occasionally cooperated too, they’re far less likely to cede control and exclusive ownership of something they consider strategically important. Ultimately, it may well be the premium and niche automakers who need such an approach more than the big guys.
Intel is buying into maps because it can’t afford to miss out on self-driving cars – Recode (Jan 3, 2017)
HERE has walked an interesting path since its acquisition by a consortium of carmakers. It’s already had an investment from several big Chinese tech names, and now here comes Intel. Intel is likely responding here to Nvidia’s early lead in car chips, though I’m not sure how much this play makes sense there: mapping is, of course, generally integrated into devices well above the chip level. But kudos to the carmakers for getting a range of other investors to buy in and recoup some of their investment.
There is so much change happening at once in the transportation industry that it’s impossible for any one company to stay on top of it all, which generally leads to a decent amount of focus. However, there are benefits to companies integrating their efforts to benefit from each other’s skills and advances, and HERE and Mobileye are doing just that around autonomous driving. It’s a smart move and one that should benefit both companies and their partners.
Fascinating thinking about an impending change to Google’s map crowdsourcing efforts – the company is shutting down Map Maker, its official crowdsourcing effort, but this just means edits will go into Google Maps itself, without much of the transparency of Map Maker. This, in turn, is a process rife with abuse today and with potential for much more anonymous mischief making going forward. The perils of relatively unsupervised crowdsourcing…
Chinese investors buy stake in mapping firm HERE | Reuters (Dec 27, 2016)
HERE is Nokia’s former mapping division, which was sold to a consortium of carmakers in 2015. China is one of the most important markets for carmakers and an important new market for HERE’s map data too, so this seems a great strategic fit. And it also allows the Chinese backers access to global mapping and navigation data, which will be useful in their expansion outside China.
Apple Adds Public Transport Maps for Great Britain (Dec 23, 2016)
It appears Apple now has public transit maps for the whole of Great Britain (but not the whole of the UK – Northern Ireland is missing). I’ve been seeing lots of cities and countries added recently – the public transit data seems to be getting more and more complete (my nearest big city, Salt Lake City, was added last week).