Beyond the Mapping Frenzy: Driverless Cars Will Depend on Highly Accurate GPS

The current money in the driverless car market is on mapping. Maps will play a key role in helping automated vehicles determine their exact location by comparing their sensor outputs (what they see) to this mapping data (what they should expect to see). With Uber spending $500M to create its own maps, Nokia’s HERE maps selling to Audi, BMW and Mercedes for $3B and Google spending undisclosed amounts to map the world, it seems like those with the best maps will win. When you dig below the mapping frenzy, though, there’s another piece of technology that has to go right for the driverless car market to happen. That’s centimeter-accurate GPS.

Pushing the Boundaries on Accuracy and Economics

Today’s autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles stay in their lanes and change lanes by relying on a suite of sensors consisting of cameras, lasers, and radar. These sensors determine what lane the car is in and are typically sensitive enough to determine where in the lane it is. But these sensors also require visual features, especially lane markings, to operate. So when the sun is setting and blinding their view, or when it’s snowing and everything looks the same, today’s sensors often break down and are no longer able to determine their lane whereabouts. Current sensors enable a vehicle to accurately navigate without human intervention about 95% of the time in pre-mapped areas. Although this may seem extraordinary, it is simply not good enough for driverless cars. That’s where centimeter-accurate GPS comes in. Through its ability to determine where the vehicle is to within 10 centimeters (about four inches), despite poor weather or the absence of lane markings, this technology is a must to achieve the safety levels needed for so-called Level 4 automation, where the car self-drives all the time and human intervention is strictly optional.

In addition, centimeter-accurate GPS will also underpin the economics needed to scale the mapping that supports these vehicles. Today’s mapping solutions are not only expensive to acquire – they are incredibly costly to implement. Fleets of vehicles equipped with specialized sensors are driving around cities to map them. This is unsustainable since roadways are constantly changing and companies like Google, Tesla and Uber would need to re-map cities every few months to keep their maps up-to-date. Because of this, mapping will eventually become crowd-sourced: the same sensors that our future automated vehicles will use to navigate by comparing what they see to these pre-made maps will simultaneously be used to update the maps. However, stitching together maps from million of vehicles will quickly become overwhelming unless algorithms know exactly where to put the data within the larger scale map and how much to trust data from each source. With centimeter-accurate GPS, each vehicle can attach its precise position and precise orientation at the time the data was taken to its mapping data. This will make map curation significantly easier than if these data were instead only stamped with meter-level accuracy that comes from standard GPS. This will allow map curation algorithms to distinguish good data from bad data: cars with better accuracy will have their data trusted more than vehicles with less accuracy.

From the Farm to the Car

Centimeter-accurate GPS is already in use today for applications like farming and surveying, but it requires expensive, purpose-built equipment. A couple of years ago, University of Texas professor Todd Humphreys and three graduate students discovered how to make this technology run almost entirely in software and on smartphones, thereby making it available to the consumer market. Ken Pesyna was honored as a Marconi Society Young Scholar for this work and he continues to be at the forefront of this technology with his company, Radiosense. Radiosense is bringing this highly accurate GPS capability to the suite of sensors that will become common in driverless vehicles. Through its software-based solution, Radiosense is able to provide a low-cost system capable of running on a vehicle’s existing computing platform.

Getting to Centimeter Accuracy

However, as with all new technologies, there are a couple of key challenges to be solved for centimeter-accurate GPS to be brought to the mass market.

In order to know where it is, a vehicle must connect to and difference its GPS measurements from those of a known reference station. To quickly get centimeter-level accuracy, a network of these reference stations, spaced by 20-to-50 kilometers, will be required. Radiosense has partnered with The University of Texas to create a low-cost, first-of-its-kind dense reference network in Austin. About 12 stations have been deployed, at $1000 each, to cover the entire city. The build-out of these networks will likely start in metro areas, such as Austin, and expand over time.

Additionally, centimeter-accurate GPS coverage in downtown environments is more difficult because the whole sky is frequently not visible. In order to provide centimeter-accuracy when the sky is partially blocked, companies like Radiosense are testing combinations of sensors, such as vision sensors that track nearby building facades as the vehicle moves, to make up for the lack of GPS signals. These sensors help provide information about how far the vehicle has traveled during periods in which there are not enough signals to compute a standalone GPS position. This is also where highly accurate maps come into play. It is very easy for a vehicle to recognize pre-mapped points of interest in feature-rich urban areas and use these to triangulate its position.

Despite the hype, it will be a slow transition from what we have now to fully-driverless cars. While today’s vehicles can warn us if we are drifting out of our lane or getting too close to another vehicle, the next generation will pull the car back into line if the driver does not respond to an audible warning. The jury is still out on whether we’ll get to mass use of driverless cars through incremental improvements, like those that Tesla is bringing to market, or through a huge technology leap with a whole new type of vehicle, as Google is developing. Either way, the next generation of highly accurate GPS will provide technology that is imperative for this market to scale.

How the World’s Brightest Young Engineers Are Helping Us Connect Everything


Connecting everyone and everything in a safe and productive way is one of the holy grails of our time. Of course this means that you’ll be able to stream the latest episode of Game of Thrones the moment it comes out. It also means that we will save lives by immediately providing information about a patient’s condition to medical professionals anywhere.   It means we will improve the environment and the food supply by helping farmers manage fields and crops at a micro level. It means that we will be able to put affordable devices and compelling content in the hands of the world’s 770 million illiterate adults.

These game-changers will all be the result of many more granular innovations that break down barriers in communications and networking. Each year, the Marconi Society, created in 1974 to honor Nobel Laureate and radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, searches the globe for young engineers and scientists doing groundbreaking work to connect the world. Candidates must be 27 years old or younger, commemorating the age at which Marconi conducted his first major successful wireless transmission.  The best of the best are awarded the Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar Award, putting them in the company of Marconi Fellows and luminaries such as Vint Cerf, Marty Hellman, Len Kleinrock, Tim Berners-Lee, Andrew Viterbi and others.

This year, we were thrilled and honored to receive an unprecedented 32 nominations for brilliant young researchers from 22 universities in seven countries. These nominations make us confident that the communications technology underpinning our everyday lives will be smarter, faster and safer than ever before.

They also give us a good sense of where the next set of innovations that help connect us all will come from:

Finding people and things faster and more accurately – in an area known as localization and navigation, nominees are focused on different techniques that will move the needle on military, social and commercial applications including healthcare, the food chain and logistics.

Making the Internet of Things real – by 2020, we expect over 50B devices to be connected to the network. Nominees are pushing the boundaries on the limitations in computation, power, bandwidth and resource allocation that stand in the way of this level of connectivity.

Practical, yet secure communications – with security front and center around the world, nominees are innovating by systematically finding security flaws in popular systems or accurately predicting fraud and proactively taking defensive measures to defend networks and users.

Expanding the capacity and quality of wireless networks – a number of nominees are creating innovative ways to bring 5G and its expanded capacity to consumers. Much of this work focuses on transitioning wireless networks from half to full duplex, extending to higher operating frequencies and solving a gamut of issues ranging from the technology needed to provide full duplex to the capacity and management tools required to implement it into existing wireless networks.

Increasing capacity and speed in all parts of the optical network – whether it’s the long haul, metro or local area network, our nominees are working on a myriad of low cost ways to break bottlenecks and speed up processing and throughput in every part of the infrastructure.

Bringing the speed, efficiency and cost benefits of new technology into legacy networks – nominees are tackling the practicalities of backward compatibility and increasing capacity in metro areas where underground facilities are already full of legacy cable.

We are amazed and humbled by the ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit and raw intelligence of this year’s candidates and by the guidance, encouragement and enthusiasm shown by the mentors and professors who nominated them. We believe that Guglielmo Marconi would be proud.

One Thing You Can Do Today For the Future of Research

Marconi Society Young Scholars

Calling all scientists and engineers dedicated to making the world a better place through breakthroughs in communications and networking: we have an opportunity for you!

While funding cuts, policy stalemates and university politics may sometimes get you down, here is something you can do today to help ensure the future of innovative research. You just need to act by July 15.

Each year The Marconi Society, founded in 1974 to honor Nobel Laureate and radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, recognizes young scientists and engineers with the potential to make extraordinary contributions in the field of information and communications science. The Paul Baran Young Scholar Award is given to outstanding students who are nominated by faculty and mentors.

When you nominate a student for a Young Scholar award, you give them so much more than a shot at the $5000 prize. This is your chance to recognize people at the beginning of their careers and give them an opportunity that may come along only once in a lifetime. Paul Baran Young Scholars are part of a unique and elite group:

  • The Marconi Society Fellows – Young Scholars meet and interact with some of them most distinguished leaders in the field. They are able to spend time with and learn from luminaries including Vint Cerf, Robert Kahn, Martin Cooper, Sir David Payne and the other distinguished Marconi Fellows. The mentoring and connections that Young Scholars receive can make careers and game-changing innovations.
  • The Young Scholars cohort – Young Scholars create long-term relationships with other young scientists and engineers around the world whose careers are taking off as fast as their own. This cohort will lead research, join faculty at the world’s top engineering programs and found or play strategic roles in leading businesses.
  • Community outreach – Young scholars have the opportunity to participate in mentoring programs such as the Celestini Project, designed to encourage emerging scholars in developing countries, They also organize and present at symposia at major universities, all funded through the Marconi Society.

Take a few moments today to honor your most deserving student by giving them inspiration, recognition and connections that will last for decades.

We look forward to your nomination.

Five Reasons To Become a Paul Baran Young Scholar

How often do you have an opportunity to build your own research reputation globally, interact with the leading luminaries in your field and be part of a fantastic community along the way? Answer: Not very often.

The good news is that this opportunity may be yours for the taking if you get a faculty member to nominate you by July 15.

Each year The Marconi Society, founded in 1974 to honor Nobel Laureate and radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, recognizes scientists and engineers with the potential to make extraordinary contributions in the field of information and communications science with the Paul Baran Young Scholar Award.

There are some pretty great things about being selected as a Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar:

  1. Recognition: Young Scholars are recognized internationally through the Marconi Society’s global reach and membership, bringing credibility and exposure to your work.
  2. Networking: Young Scholars get to really know the best researchers in the field. Whether it’s Vint Cerf, Robert Kahn, Martin Cooper, Sir David Payne or any of the other distinguished Marconi Fellows, really knowing these leaders personally is so much better than just admiring their work from afar.
  3. Giving Back: Participating in the Marconi Society’s Celestini Project lets Young Scholars directly mentor and engage with students in developing countries.
  4. Travel: The Young Scholar Award includes a travel stipend to attend the Annual Awards Ceremony, putting you in great places at great events with great people.
  5. Powerful Cohort: Your cohort of Young Scholars is a life-long network of innovators whose careers are growing as quickly as your own. Your cohort will be your collaborators, your colleagues and your friends as you all strive to impact humankind for the better.

Oh – and you receive a $4000 prize in addition to the travel stipend.

If your research is really making a difference in information and communications science and you were born in 1988 or later, this could be your year. You need to be nominated by a faculty member or mentor, so talk with that person today since nominations are due July 15.

We look forward to hearing about your great work!