From open source mapping to improving your car's GPS: The future of 3D navigation

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connecting yellow dots in a maze

Having a built-in navigation system in your new car is pretty commonplace now (that is, if you want to pay for it). These days many new car owners can just type in the address of where they want to go in to their in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system and a 2D map will pop up with some simple graphics showing them how to get there, or possibly a 3D map if you have a luxury vehicle that offers it.

But how is that 3D mapping data collected and updated? And who can access it? Marek Strassenburg-Kleciak is one of the key people behind collected 3D mapping data for OpenStreetMap (OSM), which has been billed as the Wikipedia of maps. As the senior manager for new business development at Elektrobit Automotive, one of the things he loves most about his work is putting technology visions into practice.

Strassenburg-Kleciak will be speaking at the Automotive Linux Summit this week in Edinburgh, Scotland, providing insight into OSM and the new 3D data collection efforts. In this interview, he tells us how he went from studying architecture to becoming an international expert in 3D data collection, why he believes in open source mapping, the benefits of 3D maps for navigation, and more.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you go from studying architecture to working on 3D navigation?

At the university, HFBK in Hamburg, I launched a 3D urban modelling pilot project in the mid-90s. The aim was to teach 3D modelling to architecture students. The project quickly started to attract the attention of politicians in Hamburg, and I went on to develop specifications for 3D urban modelling as an advisor to the state survey office. This in turn caught the attention of the navigation industry. I couldn’t exactly resist when they said they wanted to create 3D models of the entire world. The first 3D navigation systems are therefore based in part on my university research.

At the Automotive Linux Summit you'll be talking in part about how sensors of modern cars and mobile phones can be utilized to support 3D data collection. Can you give us a brief overview of how this works?

Modern cars are often equipped with camera systems and a variety of sensors that make it possible to determine your exact location. These cars also feature in-built navigation systems that can communicate with the cloud. The software running on these systems can also be used to capture and analyze environmental data which contribute to a more and more precise 3D model of the world. It is thrilling to work for a company which undertakes such pioneering work.

Can you talk about what you're working on with OpenStreetMap? What are the 3D specification meetings you're organizing? Is there anything in particular you like about the open nature of OSM that has driven you to get involved with the project?

As an individual, I have been observing OSM ever since it was founded. At that time, there were other, similar projects, for example the open source project UMP in Poland which emerged shortly before OSM. All these projects claim they want to map reality. But, unlike the other projects, OSM offers space for definition of three-dimensional content. And, so, I decided to work with them. Together with OSM colleagues, I invited interested OSM developers to join me in preparing a roadmap. The first step towards 3D was the so-called 'Simple 3D Buildings Definition.' This is intended as an access point into the world of 3D modelling and it seems to work. We will extend this definition over time to make it of interest to users from the open source project, Blender.

Why am I working with open source? I think many open source projects could generate innovation that is of great value to people and could open up new perspectives for all of us. Of course, big companies make huge contributions to innovation and map developing. But in some cases, they also hinder alternative concepts and ideas due to their market dominance. Just one cloud in one open source project can stop some negative tendencies.

I have a GPS for my car, and it features only 2D maps, but it seems to get me where I want to go just fine. Can you talk about why introducing 3D landmarks and 3D city models into navigation systems would be beneficial for drivers? Is this something that you foresee someday being commonplace in all new cars? How far out are we from this becoming a feature drivers expect when purchasing a car?

Many people have difficulties understanding and analyzing two-dimensional maps. We perceive 3D images with the other half of the brain: it is faster and more intuitive for many people to see a 3D image than an abstract, two-dimensional map. 3D landmarks are important navigation points which can be seen from afar. Also, being able to see 3D terrain in the navigation device is extremely helpful when driving through a mountainous region. You drive more carefully and can be aware of dangers. Information such as the incline or gradient of the road is increasingly being analysed by new vehicles. It also improves driver assistance features and plays a key role for the range management of electric and hybrid cars. And, of course, we see new developments in the field of autonomous driving every day. The more autonomously cars will be able to drive, the more do they need precise information about their surroundings.

All in all, I think we will see a lot more 3D data-based navigation systems in the long run. At the moment, 3D navigation is a standard in many premium vehicles, but it will spread into the mass market over time. This is a great chance for the open source community to contribute to innovation as carmakers are increasingly looking for possibilities to benefit from economies of scale.

A great deal of work is being undertaken into autonomous (self-driving) vehicles. If we can support this by providing better 3D models, we will all benefit. This is an entirely realistic scenario.

How do you think the advancement of in-vehicle navigation will change drivers’ habits? Do you think it makes drivers more likely to explore new areas because they know they won't get lost? Or does it keep drivers from straying from the mapped route and discovering new sights?

New opportunities will be handled differently by different drivers. All we can do is to offer new navigation systems that can lead people to their destination faster and more easily thanks to open source data.
Just consider this example: I have an appointment at an office. I have never been there before, so I use my navigation system when travelling by car. It takes me directly to the building. But what if all of the parking spaces are occupied? I will have to drive around the area without navigation and find a parking spot. I lose time and fuel.

A clever open source project will know where all the parking spaces and footpaths are in the area. The navigation will show me alternative routes to the entrance from alternative parking spaces. Only an open source community can record and update such detailed data.

If you don't mind sharing, do you drive a vehicle with an in-vehicle infotainment system? Do you have any prototypes or hacks that you've done to your system? What features do you dream about having when you drive down the road?

At work, I have a lot of opportunities to drive different cars with in-vehicle infotainment systems. Naturally, as software developers for the automotive industry, we have a variety of different prototypes in different development stages that are tested thoroughly.

Personally, I would love to see a reliable open source system to which I can add new information at any time which will then be visible to other drivers in just a few seconds. This is what I enjoy most about my work: putting technology visions into practice.

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Ginny Hamilton was a community manager for, an online publication and community focused on how CIOs and IT leaders create business value through information technology. A former journalist, Ginny is passionate about local politics, journalism, technology, and social media.

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