On Blind Drivers and Base Maps

Google has posted an inspiring video (with audio captions) of a legally blind individual riding in the front left seat of one of its self-driving cars as that car travels along a “carefully programmed route.” As the company prudently notes, the video is “a promising look at what autonomous technology may one day deliver if rigorous technology and safety standards can be met.” Both Google and a local police officer who assisted with the demo believe it to be legal.

Best Routes - PhiladelphiaThe video is also a good reminder of the potential importance of mapping. Google’s approach relies in part on sophisticated route maps that are constructed in advance of a test drive. DARPA’s Urban Challenge similarly involved what was known as a “road network description file” (or RNDF). As I’ve noted, these stored (or transmitted) data are conceptually different than the real-time data obtained by a car’s sensors: They form a shared digital infrastructure, which implicates issues of privacy, security, and liability (and suggests that early commercialization may be limited to particular corridors).

For these reasons, I was particularly interested in this article about the Geospatial Transportation Mapping Association. According to the article, this industry group is being launched in part to increase the efficiency and utility of data collection through standardization and repurposing. GTMA is also sponsoring a May 24th webinar on “Collecting the Road of Tomorrow—Utah DOT’s Imaging/Inventory Project and the Path to Autonomous Vehicles.”

Photo from Early Road Maps of Pennsylvania

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