Coming Soon To A Street Near You – Autonomous Vehicle Mapping

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BestRide recently spotted an autonomous vehicle on a public road near Boston, but it wasn’t what we thought.

Much of the autonomous vehicle research taking place in America is being done in the Silicon Valley and along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tesla is, of course, well underway with its autopilot program, and it never fails to make mention of that fact. Behind the scenes, scores of independent companies and every automaker are already well down the path of automating vehicles for a variety of applications.

One of the largest research groups is The Toyota Research Institute located in Cambridge, MA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This past weekend, were able to grab a quick image of a Lexus RX 350 with a sign affixed to its tailgate reading “Semi-Autonomous Vehicle Keep Back 100 Feet.” We assumed that this was an autonomous vehicle test-mule owned by TRI, so we reached out to John Hanson, TRI’s Toyota Advanced Technology Communications spokesperson.

Mr. Hanson listened carefully to our description of the vehicle and had an interesting viewpoint on what it most likely was. First, he told us that since it was not a hybrid, it is unlikely that it was a fully-autonomous vehicle since vehicles of that type need the power systems offered by the hybrid drive and battery. He asked exactly where I saw it and in what setting and he found many clues in that.

The exact spot we saw the vehicle is one of the most dangerous areas of the Metro Boston Rt 128 loop. This is the high-tech area just west of Boston and it has been under reconstruction for about five years. The spot where we photographed the test vehicle is unique. The three-lane highway suddenly splits with a barrier between the far left and middle lane. The white lane markers are all mixed up and it causes confusion and backups due to the crazy “temporary” layout, now in place for over a year. We have seen drivers actually stop in front of that barrier and cause mayhem.

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Mr. Hanson wasn’t sure if it was a TRI-owned and operated vehicle, but he thought not. In fact, he said that there are many companies now conducting an important function that will help enable autonomous vehicles; mapping, and data collection. Unlike the relatively simple optical systems and radar-assisted systems that work in your car today to help with lane keep assist and forward collision prevention, the self-driving vehicles of tomorrow will need super-accurate maps to help guide them. Imagine a completely snow-covered road being driven upon by a self-driving car and you can image why mapping may be critical. Mr. Hanson was pretty sure what we spotted was a data-collection vehicle. The fact that it was seen on a stretch of road with such an unusual arrangement makes that all the more likely.

Another possibility is that the vehicle we spotted was using some sort of aftermarket technology like that we recently reported on made by Comma One.

Mr. Hanson says that “Data is the new oil.” By that, he means that data in huge supply is what will power the cars of tomorrow. This jives with reports that Tesla vehicles being driven daily by private owners are operating in “shadow” mode to collect data about its Autopilot’s abilities.

Whenever an autonomous vehicle crashes or misbehaves we find out about it in reporting and it brings the topic of vehicle automation testing to light. However, quietly, a variety of test vehicles are already operating all over the country laying the groundwork for the production models we will someday ride in. Keep your eyes peeled and you may spot one yourself soon.