Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time


From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic innovations have long been an underappreciated mainstay of geopolitics and everyday life. Besides wayfinding, the use of maps was at the heart of World War II. Propaganda cards were used to sway public opinion and mobilize troops. Instagrammers and TikTok-ers use them to get to the hottest restaurant. In its latest incarnation, high-precision maps will change the future of navigation, logistics and spatial data collection.

Leading the way is a little-known Japanese startup – Dynamic Map Platform Co., or DMP. The firm, backed by government-backed funds (1), has multibillion-dollar mandates to support next-generation industries and includes major domestic conglomerates such as Toyota Motor Corp. among its shareholders.

DMP creates and builds a set of high-resolution 3D maps that are far more accurate than the standard ones we know: those on iPhones, apps like Waze, and car navigation systems that use GPS. Its data can also be used for precise drone flights.

Data collection is key. Like Mobileye, owned by Intel Corp., it depends on information collected from participating manufacturers’ cars (they collect it automatically and anonymously). The Japanese firm’s strategy allows ownership and high precision. The data is accurate – distances and locations within centimeters. Other mapping systems routed in the World Geodetic System tend to be approximate and rely heavily on sensors. It’s extremely annoying when Google Maps throws up in dense areas, or when it sends you in all sorts of directions and doesn’t recognize U-turns.

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In addition, extracting data from others – such as car manufacturers – risks running into privacy and storage issues. Or third-party details become unavailable. Self-generated information is usually more secure.

Creating these maps is a massive technological undertaking. Using the Global Navigation Satellite System or GNSS, precise locations are determined. Vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras then collect and generate data from a cloud of points—or a group of points where each has a set of Cartesian coordinates (think X-axis and Y-axis). The mapping system brings everything together and integrates the information. It captures everything, including signs painted on roads, structures, curbs, lane connections and edges, even before drivers have reached a certain location.

This may seem like too much deep technology and a lot of unnecessary information, but mapping and data collection are increasingly at the center of navigation and security technologies. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest tech events on the calendar, software-driven vehicles and autonomous driving systems were all the rage. They have sparked a boom in automotive technology and smart vehicles. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields and cockpits, taking passengers to their destinations seamlessly. 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 University of Texas Radio Navigation Laboratory is using signals from SpaceX’s Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite to create a navigation technology that is free from the geopolitics of GPS, Russia, China and Europe.

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High-resolution, high-fidelity maps will eventually allow people to visually immerse themselves in a distant place. Increasingly, analysts and academics are using multiple satellite images and other geo-location data to see what’s happening thousands of kilometers away. Hedge funds also use this to track activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open source intelligence has helped track troop movements in Ukraine. 3D mapping systems like DMP’s will eventually allow logistics firms to deliver packages through windows as society ages, using 3D maps of buildings and streets and navigating through warehouses. It will also allow electric vehicles to be more efficient with accurate information about gradients, lanes and chargers. Today’s cartography is even more powerful than it was decades ago.

So far, DMP has data on over 30,000 kilometers (18,641 mi) of highways and expressways in Japan, about 640,000 kilometers in the US, and more than 300,000 kilometers in Europe. In 2018, it acquired Ushr Inc., which counted GM Ventures and EnerTech Capital as investors at the time. Together, the two firms backed $100 million to expand high-definition coverage in North America, along with one of the Japanese government’s JOIN funds. Meanwhile, last year DMP and JOIN invested about $90 million to expand beyond North America and Japan. It has already joined automakers and hopes 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 cards installed

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As geopolitical tensions simmer, mobility innovations grow, and people travel more, maps are almost essential. Most importantly, the accuracy of the data – and increasingly the ownership of it – will matter and support further cartographic progress.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The US could protect Taiwan from China — at a high cost: Tobin Harshaw

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

• Tesla may get out of the running: Gary Smith

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

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

Anjani Trivedi is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. It covers industry sectors, including policies and companies in the machinery, automotive, electric vehicle and battery sectors in the Asia-Pacific region. Previously, she was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and a finance and markets reporter for the paper. She was previously an investment banker in New York and London

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