Mapping technology is one of the biggest technical hurdles facing autonomous cars, according to Carlos Ghosn, chief executive officer of Nissan and Renault SA. Unlike traditional maps used in current car navigation, which rely on a pre-installed database, maps for autonomous driving need real-time updates including of traffic conditions and precise road information such as closures and new signs.
“There’s a huge gap between making current navigation maps and maps for autonomous driving,” said Zenrin President Zenshi Takayama at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. “It’s like comparing climbing Mount Fuji to climbing Mount Everest.”
Such efforts are being stepped up as automakers across the world work on the technology to make self-driving cars a reality. As many as 12 million autonomous cars are forecast to be sold globally in 2035, accounting for about 10 percent of total car sales, according to IHS Automotive.
Zenrin, which is 7.5 percent owned by Toyota, is counting on this new push to be a growth driver as competition erodes revenue from its key businesses such as smartphone map services and car navigation maps. Zenrin posted two consecutive financial-year periods of sales and operating profit declines through March 2015. Its shares rose 1.8 percent to 2,007 yen as of 12:36 p.m. in Tokyo trading, their highest intraday level since Feb. 5. The company’s shares have fallen 19 percent this year, compared with a 11 percent decline in the benchmark Topix index.
“No matter how complete your current map database is, you can’t put everything in there, and real-time deep learning capabilities are essential for autonomous driving,” said Zhou Lei, a Tokyo-based partner at Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting. “In order to compete with rising rivals, especially new entrants like Mobileye, Zenrin also needs advanced computer science technologies.”
Zenrin intends to develop a system to make three-dimensional maps automatically from the data sets generated from vehicles mounted with various sensing equipment. The aim is a system that will be updated with fresh information, according to Tomoki Yamaguchi, a spokesman at the mapmaker. Zenrin, which is using data collected by equipment from other companies, didn’t give further details of how it plans to gather real-time information.
“If we just use a monitor car, we will only be able to get the same information as everyone else — we don’t have any advantage,” said Takayama. “You still need the knowhow to turn the data into maps.”
Zenrin started making tourist guide maps in west Japan’s renowned onsen, or hot springs, town of Beppu in 1948. Over the years, Zenrin moved from making meticulous print maps to digital systems used in car navigation, for which Zenrin has the largest market share in Japan.
It has about 1,000 field surveyors, such as Fumiaki Kohguchi. On a January afternoon, Kohguchi walked through the streets and alleys of Tokyo’s Bunkyo district noting changes such as new tenants or parking lots. He’s aware of the contribution his work could make to autonomous driving.