Self-driving vehicles create new mapping needs, and it's unclear what role apps like Google Maps will play in the future.
(TNS) — Since overtaking its older rivals seven years ago, Google has dominated online mapping in the U.S. But as self-driving cars steer closer to reality, competitors may close in.
Google Maps now has more than 1 billion users worldwide. In August, its mobile app drew 102.9 million users in the U.S., well ahead of its closest competitor, Apple Maps, which has 62.9 million U.S. users, according to analytics firm comScore.
People will always need to know the basic route from point A to point B. But autonomous cars create new mapping needs, and it’s unclear what role Google Maps will play. The maps demanded by the robot cars will not only track routes but also intricately monitor the environment in 3-D, so that the vehicle can differentiate between walking pedestrians and cones in the street.
“The challenge is that somebody else comes along, as soon as you have fully autonomous cars, the novelty of having Google Maps wears off,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy. “It no longer becomes unique as it once was. That’s the biggest challenge.”
The self-driving car project, now a separate company under Alphabet, has been running for seven years and logged more than 2 million miles, testing out autonomous vehicles in areas including Mountain View. The project builds its own maps. Meanwhile, Google Maps remains a division of the original search business and continues to provide directions for driving, public transit, walking, biking and ride-hailing companies.
Jen Fitzpatrick, head of Google Maps, declined in an interview to comment on Google Maps’ involvement in self-driving cars. “Right now our product does not include self-driving cars as a mode of transportation,” she said in a follow-up email. “But who knows what the future will hold.”
Her predecessor, Brian McClendon, left Google Maps last year and joined Uber, the ride-hailing company that is quickly moving to test autonomous-vehicle technology.
Google Maps began in February 2005 as a way to translate large paper maps onto desktop computers. Months later, Maps moved to mobile phones. In 2007, Google released Street View, letting users zoom into neighborhoods. By 2009, Google Maps had overtaken Yahoo Maps and AOL’s Mapquest. A year later, Street View had images from all seven continents, and just last week, Google said Street View can be seen in higher quality virtual reality on its new virtual reality platform, Daydream.
Apple put Google’s map technology on iPhones in 2007, only to break ties in 2012 and create Apple Maps.
Google Maps’ contributions were “a huge leap forward in the amount of data we have available,” said Peter Black, a lead geo-spatial engineer with real estate site Trulia, which uses the data. “Their ability to do that and leverage their scale definitely pushed (digital mapping) forward exponentially.”
In the past, home buyers would rely on real estate agents to find out about crime or nearby schools. Now, Trulia can map that information by paying to build data on top of Google Maps (a source of revenue for the unit). But it has its limitations — analysts say Google doesn’t allow outside developers to get raw map data because it considers that information proprietary, so Trulia has relied on OpenStreetMap, an open-source database, to build maps such as one that shows traffic volume on residential streets.
Google has plotted 200 countries and territories, but competitors say that the information it has on roads in some countries is limited, and Street View imagery isn’t up to date in some areas. There are also difficulties in getting access to remote areas — recently, the company provided cameras that were strapped on sheep to help map the Faroe Islands.
Other companies are moving to fill in the gaps. The Swedish startup Mapillary, for example, recruits locals to take images with 360-degree cameras and smartphones and the firm provides the data — for a fee — to companies and city governments that are looking for up-to-date maps.
“We’re approaching the beginning of the automotive mapping war,” said Jan Erik Solem, CEO of Mapillary, which sees itself as a competitor to Street View. “It creates a new playing field.”
Meanwhile, Google Maps is working to increase the number of volunteers called Local Guides that provide up-to-date reviews and information on hours, photos and accessibility at popular spots in their cities. The program has grown to more than 5 million volunteers in 235 countries, who contribute half of the user-generated content on Maps.
“You guys are quite literally our eyes and ears on the ground,” Fitzpatrick said to a group of Local Guides who had convened at the Mountain View company’s headquarters last month. Such guides will become key to getting more businesses placed on Google Maps, information that could help the company sell ads to those businesses.
Google sees the potential of Maps to bring in more revenue.
“Thanks to the rise of mobile phones, the line between online and offline experiences continues to blur,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai on a call with investors in July. “This creates even greater opportunity for businesses to use Google Maps to help bring customers into their physical store locations.”
In May, Google said it would let advertisers promote locations through sponsored pins, letting Maps users know if there was an advertised location along their route they might want to visit. In a report last year, the investment bank SunTrust Robinson Humphrey projected that Waze (a separate mapping firm that Google purchased in 2013 for roughly $1 billion) would bring in $71 million this year through its local ads. The bank estimated that figure will grow 42 percent to $101 million in 2017.
Fitzpatrick, a Stanford graduate who oversees some Google services relating to small businesses as well as its Maps division, joined the company as one of its first interns. Her father was skeptical about her employer’s childlike name and uncertainty about where the company would go next.
“As Google grew and proved itself, he became convinced that I made a reasonable choice,” said Fitzpatrick, who has worked at the company for more than 15 years.
At a recent meeting with Local Guides, Fitzpatrick was given suggestions and quizzed on what’s next for Google Maps. Ideas pitched included panoramic photos of trails and getting more real-time information on Maps.
Fitzpatrick said one of the hardest challenges for her team is deciding what types of information to go after next.
“Our users’ appetite for information about the world is quite literally insatiable,” she said. “If you look at the questions people are bringing today about their local world, the list of questions is infinite.”
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.