If the coming age of autonomous cars is to become a successful reality, the machines will need the help of John Ristevski.
An amiable guy who retains a hint of his Australian accent despite being on the California tech scene for more than a decade, Ristevski is in charge of reality capture and processing at HERE, a global company that builds high-resolution digital maps.
The company, in the process of being bought by three German automakers, will be among 115 auto-tech exhibitors at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
Put simply, the work his team has been doing for the past three years allows self-driving cars to not only see the road in front of them, but also the road beyond. Not to mention lending a hand if the road suddenly vanishes.
"I was in a white-out of a blizzard in the mountains, and the road literally disappeared," says Ristevski, whose maps he says power the standard navigation systems in 80 per cent of cars on the road today.
"Admittedly, a snowstorm may be the extreme case for most autonomous cars," he says. "But you've still got to have a solution for a suddenly featureless road."
Much is made of the sophisticated on-board sensors - radar, lasers and cameras - affixed to autonomous and driver-assisted cars from Google, Audi and others. But those high-tech eyes can go blind if lane markings are not visible.
Those sensors also can't tell if an upcoming curve is severe enough or has an obstacle that may require early braking. Having detailed maps allows such information to be telegraphed in advance to a connected vehicle, which can react accordingly.
HERE has 6500 employees in 50 countries. But the heart of its map-making operation is in modest high-rise offices just east of San Francisco. Its staff of 120 is about to shift into a higher gear.
The Nokia-owned company is in the process of being sold for $US3 billion to a consortium of German automakers (BMW, Daimler and Audi) that are pushing hard into the self-driving future.
Beyond processing the data from more than 200 data-collecting vehicles roaming more than 1000 cities in over 100 countries, staffers are busy supplementing that information with probe data provided by more than 2 million connected vehicles plying a range of international roadways.
"One of the biggest hurdles self-driving cars will have is simply becoming a technology drivers are comfortable with," says Ristevski. "Using detailed maps, we can help cars better predict the driving speed needed for each road based on average usage. And that should help cars behave in a way that instils confidence."
Mapping roads in great detail is so integral to the arrival of a self-driving future that soon any company working in the field may be asked to contribute its data to the industry at large, says Thilo Koslowski, head of Gartner's automotive practice.
"It's not impossible for a (new) company to start its own mapping program, but it's easier to see a scenario where everyone's got to contribute to the same goal," says Koslowsk. Ultimately having a system that automatically updates road information from passing cars - as with the traffic app Waze - will guarantee a faster adoption of automated driving tech.
"Maps allow you to put sensor inputs into context," he says. "They serve as a memory of that environment, so that once you get there it can react," perhaps telling the car to stop because a tree that normally is upright is now blocking the road.
The heart of HERE's mapping process is its fleet of roving vehicles. Each one has four high-resolution cameras as well as Lidar (laser-based radar) capable of collecting 700,000 data points per second of not just roadways but also buildings and anything else in its line of sight. HERE is providing some of its architecture-related data to preservationists eager to make digital archives of historic locations such as New Orleans' French Quarter.
Ristevski says the mission of his team boils down to three things. "First, finding out what's on a road, so you can determine what should be there and what shouldn't," he says. "Second, we want to know what's beyond the horizon because at [120 km/h] mere seconds go by before a car gets there. And third, we're aiming for a goal of 20cm (7 inches) of precision so that we can place a car exactly where it should be on a road, because any more and it could be dangerous."
Ford is making use of HERE's high-res maps with its London-based GoPark experiment, which helps area drivers navigate complex parking regulations by overlaying detailed street maps and parking rules against a car's GPS coordinates.
"HERE's scale gives us crucial global coverage," says Will Farrelly, head of user experience and innovation for Ford Smart Mobility. The company recently announced it would begin testing its self-driving Fusions in California in 2016.
For Ristevski - who has been in the mapping game since co-founding street-level imagery company Earthmine, which sold to HERE in 2012 - this is a golden age for people in his line of work.
"This is a most fascinating problem, how to get worldwide road maps that update in real time," he says with a smile. "Autonomous cars have many hurdles to navigate, from legal issues to cultural acceptance. But ultimately, I'm convinced that with the right technology, human driving will be the riskiest part of the equation."