TomTom: ‘We want to become market leader in digital mapping for autonomous driving.’
Sep 27, 2018 2:06:15 PM. By: High Tech Campus
High Tech Campus Eindhoven recently welcomed TomTom, the Dutch multinational in navigation software and digital maps, as the most recent member of its fast growing high-tech family. We asked Paul Hesen, VP and head of Custom Systems at TomTom, how they like it here and what thrilling new technology they are working on.
TomTom’s clients include many of the big car brands like Renault, Peugeot, Citroën, Nissan, Fiat, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes. The High Tech Campus office is the main site for the development of software products for the automotive industry. The company has the ambition to become world leading in digital map making for the self-driving cars of the future.
As head of Custom Systems, the department dealing with software engineering for navigation, digital mapping and traffic information, Paul Hesen operates at the cutting edge of today’s automotive technology. We took the opportunity to talk shop and ask the obvious automotive question: what drives TomTom?
What made you decide to move to High Tech Campus Eindhoven? "We were looking for a more inspiring environment for our employees. Another important reason is attracting new talent. With all its high tech companies and startups the Campus has a magnetic appeal. People from other countries will be much more inclined to work on the High Tech Campus than on some industrial site.”
How do you like the atmosphere on the Campus? “Walking around here gives me a lot of energy. Especially The Strip generates the feeling that things are moving and happening. All the events that are organized here also provide a great opportunity. So I really like it.”
Paul Hesen, VP and head of Custom Systems at TomTom
What kind of technology are you working on in the Eindhoven office? “One of the things is trying to make our navigation systems easier to use. We want to make updating maps fully automatic, without having to resort to SD cards or usb sticks. We’re also looking at smart destination planning. We’re developing algorithms that predict user behaviour, so the navigation system knows, for example, that every Wednesday afternoon you drive your kids to soccer practice. Another project is software support for electric cars, where we try to diminish what is called ‘range anxiety’, the worry of running out of electricity before you reach your destination. Combining information like the location of electric loading stations, driver profile and the optimum loading moment, our software will calculate the smartest and fastest route. And we’re also developing applications for advanced driver assistance. Using map information we try to make driving safer and more economic. So when the map sees a hill or a sharp turn coming up, it acts upon the gears to navigate that hill or turn in the most economic way, without the driver interfering. It’s kind of an in-between form of autonomous driving.”
Will autonomous driving change the way you do digital mapping and navigation? “Yes. Since computers have difficulties interpreting traffic situations, maps will need to be much more detailed and up-to-date. A human driver is able to respond to situations where the actual road shows something different than the digital map, but a computer in a self-driving car is not that flexible. HD maps need to be updated more frequently than navigation maps because they serve a safety-critical function. By solving that problem we want to become market leader in digital mapping for autonomous driving.”
How do you go about making that super detailed, ever-updated map? “The basic method is the same we use now, which is using a mobile mapping van with a LiDAR camera on its roof to map out all the roads in the world. What’s new is that cars themselves will also start collecting data to update our maps with their own information. Modern cars with built-in sensors will act as a cheaper version of a mobile mapping van. Those data flows enable a map in near real time, powered by the fastest map creation system in the world. Creating that technology is one of the things we do here in Eindhoven.”
Will autonomous driving be impossible without this new map technology? “Yes, that is the global consensus in the automotive industry. When autonomous driving started several years ago, most car companies thought they would be able to make their own maps by using the sensors in their cars. Now it’s clear to everyone that the quality of those sensors is simply not good enough. You need high quality mobile mapping vans that can map roads with much more detail and precision. And in some situations you also need people to explain things to the computer. We cannot do everything with artificial intelligence alone.”
How long do you think it will take before self-driving cars are a reality? “Self-driving on highways will progress very fast, as the more expensive cars are almost there already. But in the urban environment it will take much longer. The bottleneck is not so much the technology, but legal and ethical issues. Who is responsible when a self-driving car crashes another car: the OEM, the software supplier, the sensor supplier, the driver? Solving these questions will take a lot of time.”
Finally, Eindhoven is a city with a lot of young tech talent. Are you planning to use any of that at TomTom? “Absolutely. We’ve already collaborated with the Eindhoven University of Technology in projects like STORM and Solar Team Eindhoven. It’s very impressive how students build these ideas and generate so much publicity for them. Startups like Amber are also very interesting for future collaborations. Naturally we will also need people beyond the region of Eindhoven, but we receive any and all talent with open arms.”