Self-driving cars currently lack the common sense needed to navigate using a traditional human map. Since they can't interpret context, they need to rely on a map signal that doesn't cut out in tunnels, waver in precision or fall out of date.

The big picture: A new class of machine maps have thus become an essential element of safe and predictable vehicle autonomy. But what’s obvious to human drivers can be incredibly difficult to replicate in code, as can collecting the necessary data.

Maps for humans, like those displayed on a smartphone, rely on GPS and simple receivers that are accurate to a few meters. But they can afford to be a little imprecise — even though the map doesn't know the difference between a sidewalk and a street, it trusts that you do.

To compensate for their inability to operate safely and reliably from context alone, AVs need more of the scenes they encounter to be pre-mapped. No amount of sensor data can substitute: Maps tell an AV there’s a traffic light coming, for instance, even when a large truck blocks the view. Up-to-date maps also let AVs reroute to avoid tough situations like unprotected left turns or intersections under construction.

These machine maps must meet several key demands:

  • Incredible precision, so the car can compensate for its lack of understanding context and know where it is within 10 cm.
  • Granular instructions, like which lane the car is in, the traffic rules that apply to that lane, and even overhead clearances and road elevation.
  • Constant connection, which continues to provide information even when GPS signals are weak or missing.

The catch: Collecting accurate 3D data of cities and keeping the information on them up-to-date have both historically been incredibly expensive and time-consuming. Even a thorough one-time map is almost useless for autonomy because cities are constantly evolving.

What to watch: Since autonomy deploys in small pockets around the globe, shrinking the cost and size of sensors (some combination of cameras, lidar and motion-capture data) to create and update these maps is crucial to meeting market needs. The challenge is making the hardware footprint lighter and scalable, while also delivering sufficient accuracy.

Neehar Garg is head of product at

Go deeper: Why machines need maps of their own

Go deeper

3 hours ago - Health

Fauci says if people won't wear masks, maybe it should be mandated

Anthony Fauci. Photo: Graeme Jennings- Pool/Getty Images

NIAID director Anthony Fauci told CNN on Friday evening that if "people are not wearing masks, then maybe we should be mandating it."

Why it matters: Fauci made the comments the same day the U.S. hit its highest daily COVID-19 case count since the pandemic began.

Harris to Black voters: Casting a ballot is about honoring your ancestors

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris speaks at a "Get Out The Vote" rally at Morehouse College. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Kamala Harris appealed to Black voters in Georgia on Friday, urging them to "honor the ancestors" by casting ballots, and again calling President Trump a "racist."

Why it matters: The U.S. saw a significant decline in African-American voter turnout between 2012 and 2016, reaching its lowest point since 2000. Higher turnout among Black Americans this year could tip the balance in favor of Democrats in key battleground states, including Georgia.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: Fauci: Trump hasn't been to a COVID task force meeting in months.
  2. Sports: The youth sports exodus continues — Big Ten football is back.
  3. Health: U.S. hits highest daily COVID-19 case count since pandemic began —AstraZeneca to resume vaccine trial in U.S.How to help save 130,000 lives.
  4. Retail: Santa won't greet kids at Macy's this year.
  5. World: Spain and France exceed 1 million cases.