How TomTom is open to building a digital twin of the planet

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton November 18, 2022
Mapping and navigation specialist TomTom has a new vision of the future

Image of the world connected via a digital network
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Earlier this century, location and navigation specialist TomTom was synonymous with in-car satnavs. But the age of the smartphone has made the market more challenging for the Dutch company – a situation reflected in its revenues and profits in recent years.

Many drivers now resort to Google and other mobile-based mapping solutions, which work just as well on foot and in trains. Yet TomTom still has a broad range of ongoing partnerships in place with Big Tech and automotive companies, including Huawei, Apple, and Uber, to provide underlying technology and map data.

However, the core challenge for every player in this space is that maps are expensive and time-consuming to produce and update. Historically, this has favoured proprietary solutions: to map the world you first have to own a walled garden within it, then persuade users to enter your realm before they can explore their own with your data. 

But instinctively, this feels wrong when we are talking about geography, about shared physical spaces and the built environment. Evidence suggests that TomTom now agrees with that assessment as it announces the creation of its new Maps Platform, based on open-source technology and open data. The new ‘super-sourced’ service will launch in Q2 next year.

The project makes sense in the long term, because it allows TomTom to not just mobilize and engage a global community of partners and developers, but also pull in data from a huge variety of sources, including sensors, vehicles, and the IoT. It’s a solution that, conceptually at least, seems future proofed.

Mike Harrel is VP of Software Engineering for TomTom. Formerly at Amazon and Microsoft, where he worked on geospatial projects, he explains that the massive expense of producing maps in a Big Tech world has persuaded him that a new approach is essential to capitalize on the unprecedented volumes of data that are now available. Harrel says:

I saw that mapping was going to have to change. Even though we have all this sensor data, it is coming in like a tsunami. It's accelerating so fast. And because we have algorithms, automation, and machine learning, the amount of computing power and processing to collect all this data, process it, and build a map from it is only getting more expensive, not cheaper.

And another reason is the customer’s expectations of the quality of the map are getting exponentially higher too, in terms of what they want to see from it.

Along with others, TomTom has been part of the OpenStreetMap [OSM] project for some time, and it remains a partner in the new platform. But even this worthy geodata initiative has posed problems for some. Harrel adds:

Most of these companies, even today, still aren't leveraging OSM in a significant way. Most of it's still in tech, secondary, and tertiary markets. Or they're just evaluating it, because they're still struggling with using it, surprisingly. 

And so, all of this really leads us to the three main options that have existed in mapping [for both users and developers]: you can build it yourself, which is costing hundreds of millions, and now billions, of dollars without it really being a differentiator. 

Or you can go with a proprietary map, which is what TomTom has had, and Google. But the challenge with that is it limits your control over what features and fixes can be added to an app. Collaboration is more difficult and integration as well, particularly when trying to integrate from different providers; it's a nightmare. 

But the most difficult thing is that the pace of advancements is limited or bound by the priorities and resourcing of that one company, and how much they want to put into the map or are capable of putting into it. 

And so that's why we've switched to looking at open data [which is option three].

OSM has posed other challenges too, he adds:

It's a community of editors and they will fix issues as they come in. But they're not able to fix them right away. And so, this new attack vector comes in for vandalism and other things that are concerning for companies. 

Plus, commercial routing is not really commercial grade yet. And one of the biggest challenges is standardization. In OSM, each country has its own community. So, it's fantastic for innovation and adding new things to a map, but ultimately it makes it very hard to consume that information because everyone's doing their own thing.

A collaborative open source platform 

All of which brings us to TomTom’s new initiative:

TomTom is building a new platform based on open source as its base map, which allows everyone to collaborate in the same ecosystem, building out their own mapping capabilities. 

So, the best way to describe it is we're going to have a single base map that's open, so that everyone can add their own proprietary or additional information as a layer on top of that, and the platform does continuous integration and continuous delivery of that information. 

It takes these layers that are being built in the ecosystem, then provides a way for those multiple layers to be condensed back down to a single map and delivered. 

TomTom is going to add all the standardization, quality control, and vandalism checks on top. An enterprise offering built on open source, allowing everyone to collaborate and create their own content within this ecosystem.

So, the big question now is: is the new platform still designed for a human-readable world? Or it is really designed for the autonomous, connected vehicles and on-demand services of the future? Harrel says that the beauty of the ecosystem is it will scale horizontally in a way that embraces both equally well.

But what about maps that are also useful for airborne services, such as drones and air taxis, which will also be integrated into a mixed, on-demand transport system in the years ahead? Harrel says: 

Yes, that type of information too, this mapping system would absolutely support that. If someone wants to prioritize adding that content, while leveraging the content that's already in place, yeah, it would absolutely support that.

A complete representation of the world

But the priority for TomTom is creating a map that is always up to date, he explains:

With this platform, it's so important to have a continuous integration and continuous delivery, because the days where you could work on a map for a month or a year and then send that out are gone. Everybody needs the map to be updated actively.

What about the most granular, human-centric data that might be of interest to someone walking around an unfamiliar location, perhaps wearing augmented reality (AR) glasses? This week, for example, Google Maps is launching a Live View system that allows wearers to explore cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Harrel says:

That's the biggest area of advancement where we're working with a number of companies. Not just routing you to where the building is so you can self-navigate, but also for delivery services and stuff like that, where they want to know the specific door they should go to. This empowers that in a significant way.

So, in a way TomTom is really engaged in a new business: building a digital twin of the planet?

I've never heard someone use that analogy. But it's a phenomenally good one, because what's happening today, if you think about it, is everybody is trying to create their own version of that digital world. But it’s becoming so detailed, it is almost as if it is a complete representation of the world. And we can't afford to have multiple versions of it.

My take

A bold initiative from a company that was a prime mover in mobile navigation, but has since suffered from others’ successes.

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