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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Breathless media coverage of when and how AVs will be deployed has largely ignored the reality that AVs can only drive on roads that have been mapped, mostly in cities.

Why it matters: If AVs were deployed today, they would be unable to navigate millions of miles of U.S. roads that are unmarked, unlit or unpaved, and the technology needed to do so is still nascent.

What's happening: Companies like Waymo test their AV fleets in big cities where they’ve spent thousands of hours labeling the exact 3D positions of curbs and lane dividers.

  • Rural roads, meanwhile, have a diversity of surfaces that make them more complicated to map, and they also get less traffic, so there’s less incentive for companies to devote resources to mapping them.

What's needed: AV's current navigation capabilities could be enhanced if two types of solutions were adopted: automated maps and perception-based technologies.

Generating maps automatically involves taking aerial images and geographic data, and then converting them to machine-readable 3D maps.

  • That’s the idea behind companies like Mapper, DeepMap and lvl5.
  • This strategy still has limits, like the fact that it usually requires hiring people to physically drive around gathering images of roads.

Perception-based technology and systems would enable an AV to navigate without highly detailed maps, relying instead on cues like clear road markings.

The bottom line: With or without maps, AVs still can’t function in many scenarios, including unmapped roads. Additional advances in sensor technology, mapping, algorithms for perception and more will move AVs closer to full autonomy anywhere.

Daniela Rus is director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Technology

CES was largely irrelevant this year

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Forced online by the pandemic and overshadowed by the attack on the Capitol, the 2021 edition of CES was mostly an afterthought as media's attention focused elsewhere.

Why it matters: The consumer electronics trade show is the cornerstone event for the Consumer Technology Association and Las Vegas has been the traditional early-January gathering place for the tech industry.

The FBI is tracing a digital trail to Capitol rioters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo

Capitol rioters, eager to share proof of their efforts with other extremists online, have so far left a digital footprint of at least 140,000 images that is making it easier for federal law enforcement officials to capture and arrest them.

The big picture: Law enforcement's use of digital tracing isn't new, and has long been at the center of fierce battles over privacy and civil liberties. The Capitol siege is opening a fresh front in that debate.

Off the Rails

Episode 6: Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 6: Georgia had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 and Donald Trump's defeat in this Deep South stronghold, and his reaction to that loss, would help cost Republicans the U.S. Senate as well. Georgia was Trump's last stand.

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.