Mapping the World, One Centimeter At a Time


From stone tablets to atlases, cartographic inventions have long been an underappreciated element of geopolitics and everyday life. Besides wayfinding, the use of maps underpinned World War II. Propaganda maps were used to influence public opinion and mobilize troops. Instagrammers and TikTokers use them to navigate the hottest restaurant. In their latest incarnation, high-precision maps are changing the future of navigation, logistics, and spatial data collection.

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

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

Data collection is key. The likes of Intel Corp.-owned Mobileye rely on crowdsourced information from participating manufacturers’ cars (which they collect automatically and anonymously). The Japanese company’s strategy allows ownership and high precision. Data is accurate – distances and locations within centimeters. Other mapping systems in the World Geodetic System are approximate and rely heavily on sensors. It can be very annoying when Google Maps throws you off in dense areas, or sends you in all sorts of directions and doesn’t recognize U-turns.

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Additionally, sourcing data from others – such as car manufacturers – runs into privacy and storage issues. Or, the details may not be available from third parties. Self-generated information is more secure.

Creating these maps is a huge, technical effort. Exact locations are determined using the Global Navigation Satellite System, or GNSS. Then, vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras collect data and create a point-cloud — or group of points, each with Cartesian coordinates (think X-axis and Y-axis). A mapping system brings it all together and integrates the information. It takes everything in place, including roads, structures, curbs, lane connections and signs painted on curbs, before drivers even get to a location.

It may seem like a lot of deep technology and a lot of redundant information, but mapping and data collection are increasingly at the heart of navigation and defense 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 are booming in auto-tech and intelligent vehicles. These maps are integrated into drones, windshields and cockpits to seamlessly guide passengers to their destinations. In China, the rapidly expanding market for such cars is expected to reach 960 billion yuan ($141 billion) by 2025. In the US, a team at the University of Texas Radiology Laboratory is tapping signals from Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite. GPS is a navigation technology freed from the geopolitics of Russia, China and Europe.

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High-definition and accurate maps will eventually allow people to immerse themselves in a remote location. Researchers and academics use satellite images and other geo-sensing data to see what’s happening thousands of miles away. Hedge funds also use it to monitor activity in factories and warehouses. In recent months, open-source intelligence has helped track troop movements in Ukraine. Three-dimensional mapping systems such as TMP will eventually allow logistics companies to deliver packages through windows using 3D building and street maps. This will allow electric vehicles to be more efficient with accurate information about gradients, routes and chargers. Cartography today is even more powerful than it was decades ago.

So far, DMP has data on 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) of highways and motorways in Japan, about 640,000 kilometers in the United States, and over 300,000 kilometers in Europe. In 2018, Ushr Inc. counted GM Ventures and Energetic Capital as investors at the time. Together, the two companies, along with one of the Japanese government funds JOIN, backed $100 million to expand high-definition coverage in North America. Meanwhile, last year, DMP and JOIN raised about $90 million to expand beyond North America and Japan. It has already signed up automakers and hopes to become a key tool for logistics and infrastructure providers. General Motors Co.’s Cadillac models CT6, XT6 and Hummer, known for their semi-autonomous systems, have installed these maps.

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As geopolitical tensions ease, mobility innovations increase, and people travel more, maps are all the more necessary. Importantly, data accuracy – and increasingly, its ownership – is critical and will underpin further cartographic developments.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• US Can Protect Taiwan From China — At Great Cost: Tobin Harsha

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

• Tesla may be driving itself out of the running: Gary Smith

(1) Japan Overseas Infrastructure Investment Corporation for Transport and Urban Development, or JAN, and 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. He covers industries including policies and companies in the machinery, automobile, electric vehicle and battery sectors across Asia Pacific. Previously, he was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street and the magazine’s finance and markets correspondent. Before that, he was an investment banker in New York and London

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