TomTom squares up to rival Here with Baidu and Cisco deals

TomTom seems to be ramping up its plan to challenge Here, the incumbent leader in the automotive mapping market, with a string of announcements last week. It comes as battle lines continue to be drawn in the industry, which is being rocked by major shifts in the supply chain.

TomTom, once a leader (with Garmin) in portable navigation devices, has been overshadowed by smartphone apps and by Here, once owned by Nokia and now by three German carmakers. But it has not given up, and has recently partnered with Chinese search giant Baidu; added western Europe to its HD Map coverage; and unveiled a proof of concept (PoC) with Cisco that uses lasers and fiber optic cables to monitor cars traveling down a road.

The emerging navigation industry is still a little incestuous, with companies signing deals with multiple partners, ahead of clear battle lines being drawn. But it is clear that TomTom and Here are headed for a drawn-out conflict, as they compete to become the prime choice for high definition maps for self-driving vehicles.

Both approaches – Here’s Open Location Platform and TomTom’s Real-Time Map Platform – rely on using data from vehicles traveling on the roads to keep their maps fresh. They send flagged items or anomalies, such as roadworks or new road signs, up to the cloud so that the new information can be shared among the rest of the map users.

The maps are key to the self-driving capabilities, providing a long range view of the world that the short range on-board sensors can’t see. Essentially, the on-board sensing prevents the car driving into other vehicles on the road, but the maps are what lets its drive from home to work, or from city to city. A self-driving vehicle needs both.

Here is at the center of a web of developments in this area. It was acquired in 2015 by a consortium consisting of Audi, BMW, and Daimler. Later, the trio sold Intel a 15% stake, with another 10% slice purchased by a trio of Chinese investors, consisting of Tencent, NavInfo and GIC. Intel bought in ahead of its $15.3bn purchase of Mobileye, a leader in the machine vision self-driving silicon and software industry, and taking a stake in a mapping provider was a logical first step for Intel’s incursion into the automotive industry. At the time, Baidu was involved in a self-driving development project with BMW, which later fell apart.

Meanwhile, TomTom has had its own breakthroughs. Last month, it announced a deal with Bosch to combine that firm’s Radar Road Signature technology with TomTom’s HD Maps, for improved localization – promising centimeter accuracy for self-driving cars that are using radar in conjunction with a TomTom map. Bosch notes that the system requires only 5kB of data per kilometer to be sent to the cloud, which is apparently around half that required for video-based mapping.

Also announced that week were deals between Baidu and both Bosch and Continental. The Bosch deal expanded on an earlier mapping-focused deal with Baidu, and the Continental deal focused on developing new business models and products for connected vehicles, including self-driving technologies.

Following on from those, TomTom and Baidu have announced that they will be developing a global HD map service, which combines their respective expertise. Baidu will also be using TomTom’s Real-Time Map Platform to improve “HD map-related technologies utilized in China”.” Notably, Baidu has a deal with Here to provide maps for its operations outside China – meaning that the web giant is a common customer for the two rival platforms – although the Here deal is more focused on web-based map services, rather than self-driving cars.

Baidu’s Project Apollo, launched back in April, is a fairly ambitious strategy that aims to unite the global automotive industry around an open source portfolio of technologies – spanning software platforms, hardware designs, and reference vehicles.

Apollo has a serious hill to climb, thanks to the fairly insular and independent approaches of automakers, but Baidu hopes to provide a “robust, mature, and secure autonomous driving technology” that will entice the automakers – with Baidu monetizing Apollo via its API layers.

However, Baidu has announced this week that some 50 companies have joined Apollo, including Bosch, Continental, Daimler, Ford, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, TomTom, and Velodyne.

Baidu does seem well-placed to become the standard approach for Chinese automakers, but trying to convince the Europeans and the US to join could be rather challenging. The open-sourced obstacle perception, trajectory planning, vehicle control, vehicle OS, and testing tools, have been developed in partnerships with BAIC, BYD, and Chery – all Chinese automakers. Nvidia is also supplying Baidu with its Drive PX sensor fusion boards, in a separate deal.

The Chinese web giant has been targeting AI and automotive as diversification strategies, and says it has been developing HD maps since 2013 – using machine learning techniques to help automate its data processing and map creation process.

“Autonomous driving is a paradigm shift for the automotive industry, and engineering and testing the systems to make it a reality is much less effort when those systems are globally identical. Our collaboration with TomTom creates a uniform global component in the form of a single HD map service, and further advances our open source self-driving car program, Apollo,” said Qi Lu, Baidu’s COO.

The second piece of TomTom news is the newly announced western European highway coverage, which adds to TomTom’s US highway coverage. The European addition amounts to just under 110,000 miles, across 19 countries – bringing TomTom’s total coverage to nearly 225,000 miles. This map, which acts as a 3D view of the roads and surrounding environment, are used by TomTom’s HD Map, as well as its RoadDNA products.

“It’s a significant milestone to have completed the full highway road network in Western Europe as well as the USA. TomTom’s products will enable OEMs to roll out ADAS and autonomous driving systems that works consistently across the road networks – essential for accelerating the future of driving,” said Willem Strijbosh, head of autonomous driving at TomTom.

The final announcement from TomTom was that it is partnering with Cisco in a proof-of-concept system that uses fiber optic cabling to listen to vehicle traffic on roads – firing light down the cable and monitoring its reflections to infer traffic. Called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS), the system would see Cisco collect this data, and pipe it off to TomTom’s cloud platform – where it can be merged with the maps.

TomTom’s Louis Debatte, strategic product marketing manager, noted that new and refurbished roads are increasingly being supplied with fiber optic lines, to support the growing trend of connected infrastructure. The DAS system can be used on cables that are carrying live data too, but often there will be unused strands of fiber in the networking bundles that can be used instead.

While V2I connections are a good few years away, fiber is the obvious answer to the question of backhaul – and so it’s very interesting to see DAS floated as a means of monitoring real-time traffic, potentially over the very fiber that will be backhauling IP packets containing its DAS findings.

In addition, Debatte said that the DAS readings will be merged with its Floating Car Data, a pool of 500m devices that help keep the maps up to date. These devices include satnavs, smartphones, fleet management trackers, and embedded navigation systems – but TomTom can’t disclose the ratio.

In typical Riot fashion, we asked how the PoC would be monetized, should the system prove successful enough for a commercial launch, and whether a revenue share deal would be used, or a price-per-unit deal from Cisco and its fiber infrastructure. Debatte noted that TomTom couldn’t disclose this information.