We are poised at the brink of a revolution.
Dramatic as that may sound, it's true: autonomous vehicles are coming, and when they finally arrive, they will upend whole industries, force cities to reevaluate the way they earn money, and of course, bring about radical changes in the way that we get from place to place.
Automakers know this. And some of them have begun to realize that the auto industry of the future probably won't be dominated by car companies, but by the technology firms that keep those cars humming along.
And that's why three German automakers -- Audi, BMW, and Daimler -- have agreed to pony up 2.8 billion euros ($3.1 billion) for Nokia's digital mapping unit, HERE.
Although these companies have collaborated before, previous efforts pale in comparison to this massive project. Under the terms of the deal, each automaker will receive a one-third stake in HERE, with the sale to be finalized in the first quarter of 2016. HERE will be an independent company, focused entirely on mapping and the technologies put those maps to work for drivers.
Meanwhile, Nokia will now be free to devote all its time to building equipment for mobile networks.
WHAT'S THIS SALE REALLY ABOUT?
Without information, it's hard to do anything: doctors couldn't perform surgeries without understanding the human body, postal workers couldn't deliver our precious Amazon boxes without correct mailing addresses, even our dogs couldn't fetch sticks if they had no idea where they'd been thrown. (Some can't even manage it then, poor fellas.)
In transportation, maps are essential. Most days, we travel familiar routes, unconsciously relying on the maps in our heads. In other cities, we turn to our phones or built-in nav systems to get around.
A few years from now, when our cars do the driving for us, they'll depend just as heavily on maps. Without those maps, everything would grind to a halt.
And that's why Audi, BMW, and Dwimler are buying HERE. They're not just doing it to keep their cars on the right road; they're also hoping to license HERE to other automakers at a hefty premium. Nokia itself earned some 28 million euros ($30.7 million) in the first six months of 2015 for doing the same thing.
And even before our cars become fully autonomous, systems like HERE will pull data from linked vehicles (aka "the swarm") and offer useful driving advice, much as Waze's network of users alerts motorists to traffic jams. As Audi says in a statement issued today:
The social benefits of swarm intelligence are enormous: They facilitate warnings of hazards in real time, of icy roads for example, based on calculations of individual data such as ABS activations and outside temperature. Upcoming traffic jams will be identified more precisely in the future, significantly reducing the risk of accidents. In this way, the vision of accident-free driving is gradually becoming reality. In a further stage, the data could be used to learn about critical bends on the road, in order to warn drivers in good time or to activate assistance systems. Anticipation of green phases of stoplights could navigate vehicles through an urban area on a “green wave” with the appropriate engine performance and minimized fuel consumption.
High-precision maps are important for autonomous driving and many other forms of assistance systems, as these technologies require an up-to-date plan of a vehicle’s surroundings exact to the nearest centimeter, in order to react in real time. While HERE already produces extremely precise static maps, they can be verified more exactly and continually updated with a constant flow of data from vehicles’ surroundings.