The technology to create driverless cars is available and being tested across Europe and the US. Accurate, online maps are a pivotal piece of the puzzle, and the most advanced maps are owned by the car industry's biggest threat - tech giants like Google, Apple and Tom Tom.

While carmakers have hundreds of years of mechanical expertise behind them, Google has fast become the one to watch in the self-driving car market. It is already testing driverless Lexus models in California and Texas, and has insight into most driver’s habits through its Google Maps business, used on car dashboards and mobile phones the world over.

Nokia Here's rival Google Maps is the most widely used online mapping tool today
Nokia Here's rival Google Maps is the most widely used online mapping tool today

Now, rivals BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have joined forces to buy Nokia’s alternative to Google Maps, if rumours are to be believed. Historically paying for Nokia, Google or Tom Tom licenses, carmakers appear to be ready to take ownership of this valuable assetfor an estimated 2.5 to 3 billion euros, reports claim. With a clash of conflicts and almost 3 billion euro at stake, Techworld investigates why these manufacturing rivals are getting into bed with each other.

What part do maps play in self-driving car technology?

Lasers and liDARS aside, a combination of sensors with GPS and accurate maps is crucial for the safety of driverless cars. Manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz are aware of how valuable Google, Tom Tom or Magellan’s maps are. For example, Nokia’s Here (formerly NavaTEQ) is testing its LiDAR technology to collect billions of 3D points and models road surfaces down to a 10-20 centimetre accuracy. It captures the slope and curve of the road as well as sign posts – including what the sign is telling drivers to do. The maps are being used in driverless car trials in Germany along the autobahn A9 from Munich, as well as the Francilienne (N104) in South of Paris, and San Jose, Michigan and eventually Japan.

Nokia's Here maps out the road surfaces in Silicon Valley for driverless car testing

Cab app Uber was first named as a contender when Nokia put the business up for sale this year. It opened its own research centre to improve mapping technology for cabs as well as driverless features in partnersip with renowned Carnegie Mellon university in the US. But sources have told Reuters that a deal with a group of German carmakers is almost signed.

The deal would place the German car manufacturers at a distinct advantage from other carmakers in the connected and driverless car race, and offer revenue streams promised to more digital business models.

If it goes ahead, the purchase is a defensive move. If a non-European company had bought the firm a manner of legal data implications may have limited use of the service and there would be no guarantee carmakers would have the same level of access to the service as they do now.

Why not develop your own maps?

As an alternative to Google and Apple’s maps, the purchase offers the consortium an opportunity to take ownership of a ready-made product and offer it to other carmakers who could buy a share in the business.

It would be impossible for carmakers to invest in research and development for its own maps in time to compete with rivals Google and Apple. It took Google years to gather enough data to make Google Maps useful, particularly through its Street View feature. With Apple-leased cars spotted driving around with cameras attached, it was rumoured the firm was working on a similar outlay for its mapping feature, but this is unlikely to be available for a long time. Apple originally offered Google Maps for its own mapping software on iOS device and was the default app for iPhones until 2012.

Ownership over the patented technology that allows cars to “talk” to mobile networks is still on the table, delaying the deal, Reuters claimed yesterday.
This early contention over intellectual property rights spells problems ahead, bearing in mind that the maps will need constant development to stay current and to differentiate between brands. 

Ten million new cars were sold with Here maps onboard in 2013, Nokia claims. It offers maps for 196 countries, voice guided navigation in 97 countries and live traffic information for 41 countries.