Maps Have Become Boring, Will Tesla Shake Things Up?

A consortium of German automakers bought HERE maps from Nokia in December 2015 for almost 3 billion euros. Accurate, advanced maps are an essential foundational component of autonomous driving.

Yet in-dash navigation systems for most cars are weaker than smartphone navigation and thus effectively redundant. They certainly have not lived up to their potential yet. However, Tesla claims to be releasing a new, updated version of its in-dash maps and navigation that is “light years ahead” of its current system. According to Electrek it’s built on MapBox and open-source routing provider Mapzen/Valhalla. Currently Tesla maps uses Google Maps data.

I don’t have a Tesla (unfortunately) so I can’t comment on the current system or any potential improvements. There are some UI images provided by Electrek that are intriguing but unremarkable.

Competition among mapping sites has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, with Mapquest as the dominant site for many years until Yahoo and Google introduced their initially more dynamic mapping platforms. Yahoo eventually gave up the maps arms race (adopting HERE) and Google became the clear leader. Amazon was an early innovator, creating a version of StreetView (before StreetView) but it abandoned that effort.

Amazon still has a Maps API but Amazon Maps are almost nowhere to be seen because their (non-Alexa) developer ecosystem is small. It’s for Kindle and Fire tablet developers.

Apple Maps shook up the market when it launched in 2012. But Apple Maps’ launch was so badly botched the Apple Maps brand has never truly recovered from the damage, despite making concrete gains over the years. Still Apple is one of the few companies in a position to challenge Google though it’s unlikely to make that kind of commitment.

While Google continues to invest, there have been some compelling innovations from startups. For example, Waze (now owned by Google) with its social data and WRLD (formerly eeGeo), offering 3D maps with a novel, game-like UI. There have been a number of interesting indoor mapping startups as well, though indoor mapping hasn’t taken off.

The entire mapping segment once again feels kind of like it’s found some sort of equilibrium — and has become boring (as much as these tools are critical in our lives now). Yet new technology (ML + AI) and ubiquitous data collection from smartphones suggest new possibilities. Certainly there are some interesting things to be done with map data, social content and augmented reality.

Perhaps a “light years ahead” mapping UI from Tesla can shake things up a bit and inspire a new generation of mapping tools and innovation.

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