To many, TomTom is a brand synonymous with satellite navigation (“Sat Nav”) devices plastered to car windshields. But behind the scenes, the Dutch mapping company has been building a veritable arsenal of navigation data and high definition (HD) maps as it gears up for the battle to power the connected, autonomous cars of tomorrow.

TomTom may not have the consumer mindshare of Google Maps, but it underpins many services you likely use daily, including Uber and Apple Maps. Microsoft also uses TomTom for services such as Azure, Bing Maps, and Cortana.

TomTom has been striking an impressive roster of partnerships of late as it looks to power myriad connected cars and mobility services. Last month, TomTom teamed up with Microsoft and public transport data platform Moovit to pool their resources and create the ultimate multi-modal transport platform for developers — one that leverages TomTom’s real-time driving and parking data. And in the past week alone, TomTom has announced new or extended map and navigation deals with NissanFiat Chrysler, and Volkswagen Group’s range of brands across Europe covering Volkswagen, Audio, Porsche, Skoda, Lamborghini, and Bentley. Additionally, TomTom will also now — for the first time — be the traffic service provider for Audi vehicles in China and Japan.

But perhaps most interestingly, TomTom revealed that it has been selected by “multiple top 10” automakers to supply HD maps, which provide a more accurate representation of the terrain including lane models and geometry and traffic signs, with centimeter accuracy. These maps are a crucial component of autonomous vehicles, given that cars need precise situational awareness to self-navigate busy thoroughfares.

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TomTom’s HD maps claim extensive coverage across the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and Europe — all key hubs for self-driving car testing and development. Though TomTom didn’t reveal which automakers it had signed up for its HD maps, this move will help it build on top of its existing partnerships in Level 1 and Level 2-enabled automated cars.

Elsewhere last week, TomTom and Elektrobit, a supplier of embedded and connected software products for the automotive industry, released what they call a HD “map horizon” for autonomous driving. An HD map horizon enables vehicles to reconstruct a detailed, virtual picture of the road ahead, in real time. For example, it may let the car’s driver-assist system know that there is a sharp bend in the road coming up, or a more unexpected obstacle such as debris up ahead.

Above: HD map horizon in TomTom

In sum, TomTom may not be a brand you think about day-to-day, but it’s a quiet giant of the technology and automotive spheres, one that car firms may become increasingly reliant upon if they want to avoid ceding more control and data to Google as it seeks further inroads to automobiles.

With that in mind, VentureBeat caught up with TomTom’s head of navigation, Heiko Schilling, to get his take on where things are at for TomTom, how it sets itself apart, and where its priorities lie at a critical turning point for the car industry.

Bump in the road

Schilling joined TomTom at an interesting juncture in its history. The year was 2007, and the company’s shares hit an all-time high in November. But within two years, the effect of iPhone, Android, and (more importantly) Google Maps had taken their toll, with TomTom’s shares plummeting 95 percent. They never have quite recovered.

Above: TomTom Shares slide

“That was exciting — in a good way, in hindsight,” Schilling told VentureBeat, with a somewhat wry smile on his face. “When I came in, we shipped Sat Navs like hell, something like 35,000 on a daily basis — the basement was completely packed, and we were hiring — that was my first two years. And then the financial crisis kicked in, the iPhone came, and Google Maps came out.”

Though the iPhone and Google Maps was a contributing factor to its downfall, TomTom was actually a launch partner for the iPhone 3GS in 2009, with cofounder and then CTO Peter-Frans Pauwels taking to the stage alongside Steve Jobs to showcase the first turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPhone. Its thinking may have been right — “well, we may as well embrace this new technology, it’s not going away“– but the rise of smartphones put a major dent in TomTom’s Sat Nav hardware business. Why would someone buy a $300 dedicated GPS screen for their car when they can just mount their phone to their windshield?

And so Schilling’s first couple of years at the company were, to put it mildly, turbulent.

“There was restructurings, reorganizations, repurposing the whole company,” Schilling said. “Being part of that was actually — in hindsight — quite cool. But if you’re in the middle of it, and you don’t know where it’s going, obviously it’s a bit frightening.”

Potholed history

Above: TomTom: Sat Nav

TomTom has evolved greatly since its inception in 1991. It began as a B2B software developer for reading meters and barcodes, supporting a number of the popular handhelds of the day, including the Palm Pilot and Psion Series 5. By the turn of the century, TomTom had aligned its business with car navigation systems, first by transforming “pocket PCs” into in-car navigation systems, then by selling dedicated GPS navigation units.

In the intervening years, TomTom branched out into all manner of verticals, including telematics to help businesses manage their vehicle fleets, as well as consumer wearables. But around 18 months ago, TomTom began a major restructuring of its business to refocus its efforts on its core strengths. In September 2017, TomTom announced it was cutting 136 jobs as it moved away from the highly competitive wearables market. Then earlier this year, TomTom revealed it was offloading its telematics unit for $1 billion to Bridgestone, so it could invest more resources into maps and navigation.

At the time, TomTom said that selling its telematics unit would enable it to become a more “focused and agile company, shaping the future of driving with highly accurate maps, navigation software, and real-time traffic information and services.” TomTom didn’t mention Google Maps by name, but that is likely one of the contributing factors for the sale. A few months before, Google had inked an extensive deal with major carmakers such as Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi to integrate Android services — including Google Maps — into their automobiles.

Moreover, TomTom CEO Harold Goddijn said that ditching its telematics unit would allow it to focus its efforts on self-driving cars.

“After a thorough review of strategic options, we have determined that the sale of telematics to Bridgestone is in the best interest of both telematics and our core location technology business,” said Goddijn. “We will continue to invest in our innovative map-making system, enabling faster map updates while lowering operational costs, paving the road toward autonomous driving.”

Schilling added that the sale has given it more direct financial clout now to invest in its core maps business — money that would’ve taken far longer to accrue through recurring revenue.

“Selling it [telematics business] for $1 billion means that we’re capturing 10 years of future revenue on the telematics business now, which we can also use to invest in some of the technologies around maps.”

Autonomous future

Above: Waymo: Jaguar I-PACE

Over the past decade, Google has emerged victorious in what could be construed as the first mapping war, focused largely on the consumer market. The tech giant has dispatched platoons of cars globally, capturing new road layouts and street imagery for use across its arsenal of products. But with the oncoming autonomous car revolution, other mapmakers have a renewed sense of purpose.

Early in the development of autonomous vehicles, debates raged about whether maps would be needed for self-driving cars at all — some argued that the cars could run completely using on-board sensors. But it soon became apparent that maps would be a pivotal piece of the autonomous car puzzle — it gives the car a level of situational awareness that sensors alone cannot safely achieve.

“The arguments [for maps] are actually quite straightforward,” Schilling said. “Sensors can’t look around corners. You need to know what’s coming up, and sensors can’t see through that big lorry driving next to you. There’s a wide range of reasons why sensors have limitations. And that is where the map comes in. It gives you comfort and safety inside an autonomous vehicle.”

While advanced driver-assistance systems are now commonplace in cars, the automobile industry is entering an exciting phase that takes things to the next level. Back in December, Google’s sister company Waymo unveiled its first commercial driverless taxi service, dubbed Waymo One. The announcement was a milestone moment for Waymo, which is among the leaders of the autonomous driving push: Waymo One was its first commercial service that riders can actually pay for, albeit only as part of an early-access program. But it’s a sign of how quickly the self-driving movement is accelerating.

Elsewhere, the technology and automotive industries are converging to ensure they’re not left behind in the gold rush. Daimler and BMW recently entered a long-term partnership for self-driving cars. The coming together of rivals was notable on a number of levels, but working together was nothing new for these giants of the German automotive world — back in 2016, the duo formed part of a consortium to acquire Nokia’s Here mapping unit for $3 billion. This deal ensured that they have sufficient control over their own location technologies, while it also kept Google at arm’s length. And as with TomTom, Here is very much betting on an autonomous future where sensor data is captured and harnessed, and HD maps that update in real time are essential.

Today, TomTom says that it has 800 million people globally using its technology in some form, be that physical hardware or an application with TomTom embedded. Through this, TomTom garners more than 20 billion location data points each day, which feeds back into its products to ensure its maps and associated information are up-to-date. It also now has half-a-million kilometers of HD maps, which it is looking to build on and continue its legacy with next-gen self-driving cars.

Competitive advantage

Above: TomTom and Mitsubishi

TomTom has some key advantages over its arch nemesis Google in terms of cars, autonomous or otherwise, and that’s to do with the richness of its real-time traffic data sources TomTom can access. Google Maps’ data is typically garnered from smartphones, which may not always convey accurate information — people use Google Maps when walking, driving, cycling, running, skating, scooting, and sometimes even sailing. Thus, it’s hard for Google Maps to discern between a horde of people riding quickly in a bike lane or a bunch of cars crawling along next to them, for example. Plus, a smartphone’s GPS isn’t always accurate.

“It’s one of the reasons why Google and other tech companies are trying to get into the car because you get much better, much more stable data,” Schilling said.

Google does offer Android Auto for carmakers to integrate into their vehicles, but it still relies on a user’s smartphone. And Google is making some progress with its fully-integrated Android Automotive offering, having signed up Volvo and Audi a couple of years back, in addition to the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance mentioned earlier in this piece. But it has some way to go before it can claim the same reach as it does in mobile.

Then there is the elephant in the room: privacy. Google, among other technology giants, have been embroiled in all manner of data-related controversies, from harvesting to leaks. Google’s core business is built on monetizing people’s private information, so this in turn could make some car companies think twice about signing up Google to power their future navigation systems.

For the likes of TomTom and Here, a primary focus on drivers, rather than advertising, may work to their advantage. And in the end, privacy could be one of their biggest weapons as the next big mapping war plays out.

“Privacy is big,” Schilling added. “Apple made it [privacy] their main product now, right? So it’s the same story for us. We’re not using data for advertising. We’re using data to actually enhance the product.”

Up the chain

TomTom’s renewed competition with Google extends beyond automobiles and into the broader developer realm. In May last year, Google announced major changes to the Google Maps API, which included consolidating its APIs into just three core products: Maps, Routes, and Places. Part of this entailed changing its pricing into a single pay-as-you-go plan, and also requiring developers to provide a credit card and billing account for all API access. The changes, which went into effect in June, raised some ire in the developer community, where many argued they would end up paying significantly more.

What better way for TomTom to respond than by launching a completely free maps and traffic software development kit (SDK) for mobile developers, giving them access to maps and traffic information, without limitations, on Android and iOS? The idea behind this move was to lure app developers to TomTom’s upgraded “free” SDK, then get them to become paying users to access premium features, such as routing or address searches. It also mirrored a move made by rival Here a month earlier.

However, TomTom’s motive wasn’t purely about getting developers to eventually pay to access more features. The more third-party applications that use TomTom’s mapping smarts, the more location data that TomTom can access, which improves the overall quality of its product for everyone, including carmakers. In short, this move was about giving TomTom more endpoints and extra data on how people travel — for very little additional effort on its part.

“Rather than us building the products, it’s [sometimes] better if you move up the chain, where you have further reach,” Schilling said. “The [free SDK] uptake has been good.”

The future, according to TomTom

It’s too early to say who will win the autonomous vehicle mapping war — in truth, there will likely be multiple contenders in there for the long haul.

TomTom, for its part, has faced a number of seismic shifts in the technology landscape in the past 30 years, and it has always come out the other side — perhaps not unscathed, but certainly battle-hardened. When pressed on what the future holds for TomTom, Schilling had one short response: “It’s all about autonomous driving,” he said.

Striking automotive partnerships and building HD maps sets the foundation for autonomous cars, but the next big development for TomTom will be maps that can update instantly so that cars have an accurate view into their environment.

“TomTom makes 1.5 billion changes to its digital maps [monthly], which are delivered to our customers on a weekly basis,” Schilling added. “This proves the scalability of TomTom’s platform, and brings us a step closer to real-time maps. That is key to the future of autonomous driving.”

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