Picture a country road on a mild winter day. Traffic is sparse. A lone car passes every couple of minutes. It’s been raining on and off, and water has accumulated in a low section of road.  As night falls, the temperature plummets. The pooled water freezes into a sheet of ice.

Meanwhile, you’re driving back from the mountains with your family, tired from a full day of skiing. You’re distracted. The radio is playing pop songs, your kids are making animal noises at each other and giggling in the backseat, and you and your spouse are wondering where you’ll stop for dinner. The ice ahead had been detected by several earlier drivers as it imperceptibly crystallized over more and more of the road. Unfortunately for you and your family, you’re completely unaware of the looming danger. At best, you are in for an unwelcome scare. At worst, a life-threatening crash.

But now let us picture a different scenario. Imagine that instead of driving blindly toward danger, that you were warned of the hazardous road conditions ahead. Imagine that when one car detected danger, it could warn the next. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Location data and platform company HERE Technologies can attest that providing such a service is a bit more complicated.

Majority-owned by Audi, BMW, and Daimler, HERE allows cars from different manufacturers to share data, so that they can provide the most accurate and up to date information to drivers. But what technology would this warning require? And how could a car warn a driver clearly and accurately, with a threshold of just a few meters while moving at over a hundred kilometers per hour?

Imagine that a safe distance before reaching the ice, you hear a series of three loud beeps from the dashboard of your car.  A calm but stern voice warns you “Slow down – slippery road 800 meters ahead.” You sit up and carefully press on the brakes, slow the vehicle to a crawl, and cross the icy patch of road in complete safety, before continuing on your way home.

This is the kind of lifesaving service that is made possible by HERE’s Open Location Platform (OLP). OLP can connect millions of vehicles to each other and assist them with a centralized brain which collects, aggregates, and interprets location data coming in from a wide-range of sources. This is the cloud technology that will define the future of navigation.

“Many millions of these events are generated and have to be processed in really short timeframes. Millions of them for every moment, endlessly. So the underlying system has to be extremely sturdy.”

Eyes on the Road

“The cars that you can find on our streets today have tons of sensors on board already,” explains DK&A’s Florian Plank. Not only do cars have many sensors, but a growing percentage of new cars are also outfitted with SIM cards by default — for example, every single BMW sold since 2014. That means that by now millions of cars are transmitting data from their scores of sensors, on everything from speed, and windshield wiper use, to temperature, and sudden braking. With so many cars on the road, the amount of data coming into the platform is staggering. “Many millions of these events are generated and have to be processed in really short timeframes. Millions of them for every moment, endlessly. So the underlying system has to be extremely sturdy,” says Florian.

HERE Technologies

HERE Technologies provides mapping, geospatial data and services to companies such as Audi, BMW and Microsoft. Founded in 1985, the company nowadays has well over 8,000 employees all across the globe.

here.com

Starting with an inconceivable amount of data centralized computing can find a pattern present in even a tiny sample of related events which, when necessary, can be interpreted as a warning. “So when tires slip,” like on ice, “sensors will pick up that event,” says Florian. This data, along with the relevant location information, is then transmitted to the Open Location Platform, which quickly processes and matches it against, for example, local weather reports. OLP uses an algorithm to find and understand any patterns, and sends an alert specifically to drivers on that stretch of road, perhaps heading into an icy patch. “Here the Open Location Platform has done everything between detecting the slippage event and getting that warning out,” explains Florian. “It provides a potentially lifesaving, service.”

High Definition Maps

Florian, along with a core team from DK&A, has been working closely with HERE over the past two years. “We have a long history together. DK&A has been supporting teams throughout the whole company,” says Florian. “We have created marketing demos for them, supported their research and development efforts, and helped to establish ways to present their HD Live Map offering.”

HERE’s platform doesn’t just include real-time anonymized information from millions of cars, it also includes other data sets like 3D city models. These HD maps are much more detailed than typical consumer maps, and are a key technology that enables connected ADAS and highly automated driving scenarios behind the scenes and at scale. HERE’s technology will make the future of autonomous cars possible.

It turns out regular maps are just not precise enough to be relied on when no human is involved. “But these HD maps are accurate within a range of centimeters,” explains Florian. “That means that they can tell you with precision where you will find a curb or a lane marking on the road.” The maps also contain three dimensional geometry, “So we can also tell the exact location of lanes and buildings, and that’s the kind of data that self-driving car manufacturers need.”

To create these maps HERE has a fleet of specialized mapping cars that drive around cities. “These HERE True vehicles are very similar to the Google street view cars in the general principle, except that they have a powerful LiDAR scanner on the rooftop that is used to scan and map the environment in 3D,” explains Florian. “And then the company uses machine learning and a team of people to clean up the data and add street signs and so on.” These maps are also “self-healing,” constantly being updated.

A Wealth of Information

With the vast amount of location data on the platform, it’s starting to show its incredible potential. And there are all kinds of visions for the future of new and novel services that this data might enable from mapping the closest available on-street-parking in crowded cities like Paris, to advising electric car drivers where the best place to recharge their car would be, taking everything into account from the battery-life expected for their given route, to the wait-times at stations.

HERE offers OLP not only to large car manufacturers, but companies in other industries as well. Now HERE is opening the service up through the HERE OLP Marketplace. The marketplace will allow companies from tiny startups to giant enterprises to buy and sell location data on the OLP and apply it to solutions we couldn’t possibly foresee.

Data visualisation is an important feature of the platform. Kacper Leńczuk (Product Designer at DK&A) has been working since 2017 on finding new ways to represent often complex geospatial datasets.

Data is only as useful as it is accessible by end customers. To that end, Florian and the DK&A team have been instrumental. They have enabled the user experience design of the entire Open Location Platform and HERE Marketplace, in a partnership with HERE that goes right back to the beginning of DK&A two years ago.

User Experience Expertise

At the end of 2017, HERE’s Kieran McMillan had only recently come on board as the Head of Design for the Open Location Platform. “We were getting ready to launch the platform, and we wanted to make sure that we were designing the experience in the right way,” he remembers.  But besides himself, there were only a couple of in-house user experience designers onboard. To keep up with ambitious roadmap HERE had for the OLP they needed to be able to rapidly build up a team. “So we very quickly engaged with Florian and DK&A.”

Kieran McMillan (right, Head of Product Design at HERE) in conversation with Florian Plank (DK&A).

Since then DK&A has constantly had somewhere between six and fourteen people working on user experience for HERE’s OLP. “It really helped us ramp up much faster than if we were only working with internal people,” says Kieran.They helped us to quickly bring in a very high level of user experience expertise.” And according to Kieran the partnership between HERE and DK&A has become virtually seamless. “It feels very much like Florian and his DK&A colleagues are a natural extension of our team – they feel very integrated.”

While working with DK&A allowed HERE to ramp up development much more quickly, according to Kieran, the partnership placed DK&A in a strategic role, allowing autonomy and flexible adjustments to maximize impact.

“Often we don’t really quite know exactly what knowledge or experience we’ll need from the outset until we start getting underway with the work,” explains Kieran. “And so DK&A helped us bridge that challenge. They have been able to respond to our needs, sometimes swapping out people as our needs change over time. Basically dialing down certain types of expertise and dialing up other forms of expertise, so that gave us flexibility.”

Eating an Elephant

It’s a mammoth undertaking and like all big projects, it hasn’t always been easy. One of the most interesting challenges in building the user experience for such a complex project, is that unlike many websites, or platforms which have a very specific user in mind, OLP targets many distinct classes of users, all of whom need to use the platform in a different way. These users might be engineers, data scientists, managers, among others. “And they might come from one of the largest car companies in the world with teams of hundreds of people working with this data. Or from a small startup with just a handful of people,” Florian tells me.

So how did Florian and the team deal with the challenge of creating an intuitive user experience for a platform with such a broad scope?

“DK&A brings not only a deep expertise in user experience and interface design but also engineering and software development,” explains Florian. “At DK&A, you’ll find not only highly skilled experts on how to build a product like OLP but also, in a sense, its users.”

The team meets virtually and in person once a week across offices in Seattle, Berlin, Wroclaw and Helsinki to review and plan. (From left: Florian Plank, Marja van Brunschot, Giao-Chung Lam, Kieran McMillan, Ayman Maat, and Gregory Hicks.)

“Healthy and maintainable yet complex systems are built from well-designed, simpler, and smaller modules. You have to eat an elephant one piece at a time.”

But Florian’s main strategy in tackling such a big project? Keep it simple: “You only get as complicated as you need at any given moment. You need to make sure that you start out with a simple system and develop your way forward from there, especially if you’re working on a product that’s this big. Healthy and maintainable yet complex systems are built from well-designed, simpler, and smaller modules. You have to eat an elephant one piece at a time.”

DK&A supports HERE also in the design and development of the company’s design system LUI.

The second key according to Florian is to make sure whatever decision you make is backed up by the people that actually need to use the product. “You don’t put out anything that’s not tested. First you put it in front of an actual user and say, ‘Run me through this. Show me how you would achieve your goals using this tool.’ That way you can learn and improve your work based on what real users do, because people never quite use the product in the way you intended it. We work closely with HERE’s user research team to put out a thoroughly tested product.”

“The Potential is Unbelievable”

Although the Marketplace is still quite young, it has already succeeded in opening up OLP to more companies. And now that the core service has been built, what’s most exciting for Florian seeing the novel and unexpected ways it will be used. “The potential is unbelievable. There are already such interesting data on the platform that you could build some really amazing services on top of it. What gets me excited about this is the potential for others to build cool stuff.”

In a few short years, our cars may be pointing out entertainment on the side of the road or where we can find the best priced vegetables in the area. They may be driving themselves and optimizing traffic flow. But most importantly, they will help keep our families safe from any of the unseen ice patches ahead. With location data and cloud computing, HERE and DK&A are delivering on that future today.