Toyota’s Tri-Ad Division Wants Open Source Maps to Guide the Self-Driving Cars of Tomorrow

The carmaker’s partnership with Denso and Aisin sees open source maps as the way forward for better navigation.

byBertel Schmitt|
Self-Driving Tech photo


If Toyota has its way, the maps guiding your future autonomous vehicle won’t be delivered through Google, Apple, Baidu, or TomTom, but via a map platform as free and accessible as Linux, MySQL, Apache, and the zillions of other open source programs powering our lives. That open source map project is called AMP, or in “Autonomous Mapping Platform.” 

The concept was presented Thursday by Mandali Khalesi, the man in charge of mapping systems, automated driving strategy, product and alliances of Tri-Ad, the autonomous drive company started by Toyota with Denso and Aisin. Tri-Ad’s mission is to turn the research developed by TRI, or Toyota Research Institute, into products, with the help of nearly 2,000 employees and a $2.8 billion budget. 

At Tri-Ad, Khalesi joins an A-team of tech celebrities. CEO James Kuffner was a member of the software engineering team that developed Google’s self-driving car. he company's CTO is Ken Koibuchi, who was in charge of Toyota’s automated driving technologies. The software chief is Nikos Michalakis, who built Netflix’s cloud platform. And UX is in the hands of Thor Lewis, a former Google alumnus.

Like everyone at the top of Tri-Ad, Khalesi is a colorful man. He graduated with a degree in astrophysics; when the light hits him in a certain way, you could mistake him for an alien. He came to Japan in 1999; six years later, he became famous for establishing Japan's first location-based mobile advertising business for luxury brands in a traditional Japanese house in downtown Tokyo. He worked for map companies such as TomTom and Nokia, and headed the Asia-Pacific business of Nokia Here, which later was bought by a consortium of Daimler, Audi and BMW. Toyota then snatched him up as its global head of automated driving mobility and innovation.

Four-dimensional maps are central to automated driving, Khalesi said. “Without a mapping framework, the vehicle is driving blind.” Companies the world over are feverishly amassing mapping data, but then, the data sits mostly tucked away in “sensor silos at OEMs, telematics companies, and mapping companies,” as Khalesi explained. 

Depending on where the bulk of drivers drive, the data can get quite tribal. “If I have 100 million miles of test data from California, I won’t have a system that can drive in Mumbai,” Khalesi’s boss James Kuffner said. “Data quantity isn’t the end of story. We need data quality and data diversity.”

Sitting in their silos and accessed through proprietary channels, data cannot enhance and complement other such sets. “What we really need is a one stop open API, something where anybody can access the data from wherever they are by any software or hardware,” Khalesi said. 

Unbeknownst to many, Toyota has quietly become a big open source champion. Toyota was the main driver behind Automotive Grade Linux, an open source O/S supported by many OEMs and suppliers around the world. Toyota also is a premium member of the Autoware Foundation, a non-profit supporting open-source projects for self-driving mobility.

Tri-Ad has shown proofs of concept, and in a year or two, you should be able to clone your copy of AMP from Github, Khalesi told me. Once AMP is up and running, Toyota will fill it not only with data generated by the 10 million cars the company sells each year, but eventually with data coming from hundreds of millions of other cars. Anyone is free to use AMP, said Khalesi, “but in return we expect OEMs, fleets, taxi companies, developers to share anonymized data on AMP with other users.”  I asked Khalesi where that would leave his former employer Here, which had plans to become the world’s supplier of real-time mapping systems. “They will be welcome to use the system like everybody else,” he said.  

Toyota’s initiative to leapfrog the nascent mapping business with a bold open-source project could hit the presumptive mapping giant Here during a delicate phase. There is incessant chatter in Here's new hometown of Berlin that the company's top management could be concentrating on low-hanging—and decidedly non-automotive—fruit, such as credit cards and retail, in an attempt to beautify the company for an IPO. A source close to the matter told me Here's early focus on automotive seems to be getting lost, to the chagrin of the company's backers in the auto industry. 

After all, telling cars where to go—autonomous or otherwise—is big business. Khalesi said that map suppliers charge OEMs “a few hundred dollars per car.” There are roughly 100 million automobiles sold worldwide each year. If successful, Tri-As’s AMP could disrupt a $20 billion business before it gets going in earnest.

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