Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time


From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic innovations have long been an underappreciated staple of geopolitics and everyday life. In addition to wayfinding, the use of maps underlies World War II. Propaganda maps were used to sway public opinion and mobilize troops. Instagrammers and TikTokers use them to reach the hottest restaurants. In their latest incarnation, high-precision maps stand to change the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data-gathering.

Leading the way is a little-known Japanese start-up – Dynamic Map Platform Company, or DMP. The firm, backed by government-backed funds, (1) has billions of dollars to support next-generation industries, and counts large domestic companies such as Toyota Motor Corporation among its shareholders.

DMP creates and produces a set of high-definition, three-dimensional maps that are far more accurate than the standard maps we know: those on the iPhone, apps like Waze, and in-car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for precise drone flights.

Data collection is important. Such as Mobileye, owned by Intel Corp., rely on crowdsourced information from participating manufacturers’ cars (which they collect automatically and anonymously). The Japanese firm’s strategy allows for ownership and high precision. Data is accurate – distances and locations to within centimeters. Other mapping systems rooted in the World Geodetic System are approximate and rely heavily on sensors. It can be very irritating when Google Maps gets thrown out of dense areas, sends you in all sorts of directions, and doesn’t recognize U-turns.

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Also, sourcing data from others – like car manufacturers – raises privacy and storage issues. Otherwise, details from third parties are not available. Self-generated information is more secure.

Creating these maps is a huge 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 set of points each with a set of Cartesian coordinates (think x-axis and y-axis). The mapping system brings everything together and integrates the information. It picks up everything, including signs painted on roads, structures, curbs, laneways, and curbs, even before drivers reach a location.

This may sound like very deep technology and a lot of unnecessary information, but mapping and data collection are at the heart of navigation and safety technology. Software-centric vehicles and autonomous-driving systems were all the rage at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest tech events on the calendar. They have made leaps in auto-tech and intelligent vehicles. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields, and cockpits, seamlessly transporting passengers to their destinations. In China, the fast-growing market for such cars is expected to grow to 960 billion yuan ($141 billion) by 2025. In the US, a team at the Radio Navigation Lab at the University of Texas is tapping signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite. GPS, a navigation technology free from the geopolitics of Russia, China and Europe.

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High-definition and accurate maps will eventually allow people to visually immerse themselves in distant places. Analysts and academics use satellite imagery and other geo-locating data to see what’s happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds also use it to track activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open source intelligence has helped trace military movements in Ukraine. Three-dimensional mapping systems, such as DMPs, allow logistics firms to deliver packages through windows and navigate through warehouses using 3D building and street maps. It will also allow 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.

So far, DMP has data on more than 30,000 km (18,641 mi) of highways and motorways in Japan, about 640,000 km in the US, and more than 300,000 km in Europe. In 2018, Ushr Inc. counted GM Ventures and EnerTech Capital as investors at the time. The two firms have jointly backed $100 million in expansion of high-definition coverage in North America, with one of the Japanese government funds joining. Meanwhile, DMP and Join spent nearly $90 million last year expanding outside of North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and is expected to become a key tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac models, including the CT6, XT6, and Hummer, known for their semi-autonomous systems, have these maps installed.

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As geopolitical tensions intensify, mobility innovation increases and people travel more, maps are essential. Crucially, data accuracy – and, increasingly, its ownership – will be important and will underpin further cartographic advances.

More from Bloomberg Commentary:

• US Can Defend Taiwan From China – At Big Cost: Tobin Harshaw

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

• Tesla may drive itself from running: Gary Smith

(1) Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development, or Join, Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, or INCJ

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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