Continental's eHorizon smart map set to arrive this year or next
LAS VEGAS -- You've doubtless heard about "smart" maps that let cars locate and communicate with other vehicles, stoplights and anything else encountered on the street.
In theory, these maps will help self-driving cars figure out what's down the road, so the vehicles can safely plot their routes.
Although true driverless cars may be a decade away, the first smart maps likely will debut this year or next. Continental AG confirms that it has a contract to supply its eHorizon smart map to an unnamed customer for a model to be marketed in Europe, North America and Asia.
The map will use a modem and Internet connection to monitor stoplights, speed limits and other data from municipal street systems, said Zachary Bolton, a project engineer for Continental Automotive Systems.
The system will analyze your driving patterns to predict what you're likely to do next, so that it can calculate the most efficient speed. "It guesses where it thinks you will go -- even if you don't use your navigation system," Bolton said.
But eHorizon won't trade data about speed and location with other cars along the route, at least not at first, Bolton noted. That will come later, as automakers introduce vehicle-to-vehicle data links.
Smart maps entered the scene in 2013, when Mercedes-Benz piloted a driverless car along a 62-mile route in southern Germany with the help of a 3-D digital map developed by Nokia Here.
That same year, Continental announced partnerships with Here, Cisco and IBM to develop those maps for the mass market. Here's fleet of lidar-equipped cars is mapping roads, IBM's servers are analyzing real-time traffic data transmitted from cars and Cisco is handling data security.
Although Continental is not naming its first customer for eHorizon, three automakers -- Audi AG, BMW Group and Daimler AG -- agreed to acquire Continental's map-making partner Here in August.
Initially, the map's main selling point will be fuel economy.
To demonstrate eHorizon's possibilities, Continental initially introduced a map in 2012 that didn't include real-time traffic updates. Its first customer was Scania AB, which equipped its heavy trucks with maps of European roads.
The trucks' onboard computers used those maps, which indicated the location and height of every hill and grade, to determine the most efficient gear selection. The truckers reduced annual fuel consumption 3 percent.
Bolton says Continental expects similar fuel savings for passenger vehicles.
If a vehicle has a stop-start system, eHorizon can improve its fuel economy by an additional 3 to 4 percent, Bolton says. That's because the map calculates the right speed for the driver to hit the green lights, and the most efficient braking strategy for stop signs or red lights.
During last month's Consumer Electronics Show here, Continental had a Volkswagen Golf equipped with eHorizon. During a 15-minute ride, the car motored past payday loan businesses, parking lots, discount emporiums and the occasional massage parlor, and eHorizon kicked into action.
When the computer calculated that a slower speed would be more efficient, the accelerator pedal vibrated under the motorist's foot. And as the car coasted toward a red light, the console screen told the driver when to hit the brakes.
While stopped at one intersection, the Golf restarted its engine an instant before the light turned green. It did not have to wait for the driver to lift his foot off the brake, unlike a conventional stop-start system.
After the ride, a couple of conclusions were clear. First, eHorizon is tailor-made for electric cars -- vehicles whose owners want to maximize fuel economy. For everyone else, the technology is nice but not a game-changer.
The system also seems best suited for nonpeak traffic. But if it's 7 a.m. and you are barreling toward Detroit on Interstate 94 at 80 mph, you are unlikely to pay much heed to eHorizon's recommendations.
In fairness, that could change when vehicles start transmitting their location to each other. Then you could find out about an accident a mile or two down the road, and change routes accordingly.
In effect, your smart map would be an upscale version of the Waze mobile navigation app, with timely warnings about weather conditions, traffic and lane closures. And since your car's computer would know where other vehicles are, it would minimize collisions.
When that day comes, you might wonder how you survived without it.