Driverless cars won't displace human-driven vehicles soon: Harold Goddijn

The CEO of the Dutch in-car navigation systems maker TomTom on the road ahead for transportation technology

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Netherlands-based TomTom NV, founded in 1991, pioneered in-car navigation systems for millions of motorists around the world, but almost lost the way itself, caught off guard by the surge of smartphones and Google’s free maps, among other factors. But the Franco-Dutch couple—CEO Harold Goddijn (57) and Co-founder and Managing Director Corinne Vigreux (52)—who built the company with two other technologists, dug deep and reinvented themselves to stay relevant. Today TomTom continues to make reliable maps, but also licenses its software, sells telematics technologies and even fitness-focussed smartwatches.

Goddijn was in India recently to visit TomTom’s software development centre in Pune, and spoke to Forbes India about the future of transportation, and India’s push towards electric cars.

Q. How has TomTom changed, especially in recent years?
The world has changed, but we’re still loyal to our old mission of helping people go from [point] A to B, and changing how mobility works. [However] we’ve moved into modern map-making, traffic information, telematic services, and online APIs.

We’ve also had to change our business model, partly under pressure from the proliferation of mobile phones, which brings a whole new dynamic. We have become, over the last four or five years, much more of a business-to-business operation. We still have a significant retail and consumer business, but the growth and the strategic direction is much more towards business customers.

We have fantastic technologies for location, mapping, and APIs; we’ve a very good customer base, including Apple, Uber, Microsoft, and most of the important car makers around the world. We’ve reinvented ourselves in the last five years, and now we’re back to grow in the areas we’ve chosen to play.

Q. Driverless cars figure prominently in your plans.

There are a number of disruptive technologies coming into the automotive industry. Electrification is one, and the second is a high degree of automation, with a view to making the cars safer, and eventually driverless. When we will get a completely driverless solution is anybody’s guess, but there are still several technological hurdles to overcome before it can become a mass technology.

There will be more gradual shifts, like adaptive cruise control, or automated braking. In many automotive applications map data and real-world representations play an important role. If you look at our product portfolio, traditionally it was about planning how to get from point A to point B. We are now adding a whole layer of new information that gives a highly accurate representation of things like where the lanes, separators, zebra crossings and traffic lights are, or if there are cycle paths and so on.

Q. Where is transportation headed, and what does that mean for your business?

The big trends are about frictionless multimodal travel. It is getting easier to take a train, book a taxi, plan a trip, and that’s translating—especially with younger people who don’t necessarily want to own a car—to new ways of transport.

Electrification is another big trend. Even here in India, I think there is a big policy drive to make cars fully electric. That’s going to take time and massive investments, but the train has left the station, so to say.

The third big trend is automation of vehicles, eventually leading to self-driving cars. What that will mean for the economy and how we live our lives is hard to predict—higher degrees of automation are primarily driven by the desire to make vehicles safer. Annual casualties on the road are about 1.25 million, and technology can bring it down.

It’s anyone’s guess what completely driverless cars might mean. They will initially probably compete more with public transport rather than private transport. They won’t completely displace human-driven vehicles soon.

There is a massive disruption going on in our technologies. Map-making in the past was an exercise of brute force—a lot of people collecting information and putting it in a database. We can be proud of what we’ve achieved, and the level of reliability. But if you look at the future, the requirements are higher. To meet those requirements, we need to drastically innovate, design and develop new technologies.

There are also big breakthroughs in how we collect data and stitch it together, mostly based on computer vision technologies in combination with artificial intelligence and deep-learning.

Our goal is to harness those technologies to make map-making more automated. We do that to contain costs, and also to readily update the maps. We rely on sensor observations to validate that the map is still okay or to signal that the map needs to be updated. That’s going to be critical when it comes to safety.

Q. Tell us about your operations in India.
We’ve been mapping India for 10 years now. Our presence here is really important for us. We have 1,000 people working on mapping and related technologies. It started as a site where we had staff entering data on computers, but it has evolved significantly over the last two years.

We have very capable engineers here who are innovating with new products and technologies. Computer vision, artificial intelligence, deep-learning and pattern-recognition are some of the under-the-bonnet technologies that our engineers in Pune are working on. Today it’s our largest centre outside Netherlands.

TomTom competes for local government contracts related to its map-making and location-based technologies, and also does business with both Indian auto companies and multinational carmakers who sell in India.

Q. Would you say India’s push for electric cars makes sense?
Electrification is realistic if you look at the wider developments in the world: There is a big push, and it has political support.

There are still things that need to fall into place, including infrastructure, such as charging stations. And the price of batteries is still high. But we’re talking about 10, 20, 30 years and I think in that time period, you will see significant drive towards electrification.

Also, electric power is becoming much more affordable. For instance, I saw in a recent auction [in India], the cost of a kilowatt of power was at 4 cents—that’s a big breakthrough.

(This story appears in the 08 December, 2017 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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