“Leading automakers want an autonomous vehicle to be able to navigate safely, whether it is on the freeway, on a residential road or even a dirt road heading into the mountains,” said Bullock. “We know the precise lane width and curvature of every road in the world, and so in addition to traditional HD mapping, manufacturers will leverage satellite technology to fill in the rest of the world.”

The new world map

It is not just the autonomous vehicle of the future that may benefit from satellite imaging. Ride-share and parcel delivery services could also be optimised by better understanding how the last few metres look when collecting a passenger, or finding an optimal drop-off location. In September, a popular ride-share company explained that it was using satellite imagery for this very reason.

Our satellites are not just mapping the major interstate freeways here in the US; we are literally mapping every paved road, every alleyway and every dirt road across the entire globe

With a large Minneapolis shopping mall as a case study, it found that most passengers were picked up and dropped off at the storefront, but that the maps only showed drivers how to get to the main road. “When a driver is on the main road, how do they find their passenger who’s waiting in front of the store? Those issues can cause ten-minute delays,” said Bullock. “The ride-share company figured out that if it could cut that down to one or two minutes, the operation becomes significantly more efficient; their drivers make more money and their passengers are happier because the pickup happened sooner.”

But even these operations are expected to eventually become driverless, and those vehicles will need to be able to find their way around without the safety net of an in-vehicle operative. Satellite imaging is by no means the answer to such headaches, but is another vital layer of data that should not be ignored.

“Heading into 2020 there is an awesome convergence of technology from space centres and AI that will ensure autonomous driving technology gets rolled out safely,” concluded Bullock. “Our satellites are not just mapping the major interstate freeways here in the US; we are literally mapping every paved road, every alleyway and every dirt road in the entire world.”