what3words could change the way of driverless car navigation

Private Life and Mobility

Raven Brookes

Raven Brookes



"Less frustrating, more efficient, much safer" - just three of the phrases used to describe what3words: a new method of identifying locations that is seeking to replace the old 'postal-address' method for GPS navigation. 


To understand what3words and the changes it brings to navigation – and to driverless cars – we must first explore how GPS works and why postal addresses have had their day. We did this by speaking to Giles Rhys Jones, the Chief Marketing Officer at what3words, to get his expert perspective on how traditional navigation methods and technology need to be left behind.


How does GPS work?

GPS is a system of navigation satellites that are circling Earth and constantly sending out signals. A receiver in your phone, car or device listens for these signals and, once received, it figures out your location by calculating the distance from the satellites.


The location itself is represented as GPS coordinates that, up until recently, have been exclusively determined by postal addresses that typically navigate to the centre of the building in question. In fact, over 70% of addresses surveyed didn't lead to their main door – and therefore found that deliveries, services and visitors struggled to find them.


The problem(s) with postal navigation

Postal addresses have served their purpose to a point – but they are limited, and don't cover everywhere you could possibly want to drive to. Parks, sports fields, beaches, car parking spaces, for example, are all off-limit for navigation systems. The best anyone can do is find the closest postal address and navigate using a traditional map from there – or perhaps drop a 'pin' to where they think they must drive to.


But urban-bias isn't the only problem with postal-navigation. Inaccuracy is inherent, due to the fact the addresses themselves are not unique. There are 14 Church Roads in London, for example, and 632 Juarez Streets in Mexico City. Duplications like this can lead to some big problems for the users. Take the unfortunate American tourist, for example, who typed 'Laugarvegur' instead of 'Laugavegur' and ended up on a six-hour detour in Iceland.


There's also serious incompatibility with voice recognition, which is an increasingly essential element of modern driving. Voice systems will often struggle to pull up the correct destination due to accents, and many addresses include homophones. Take Lorne Road and Lawn Road in London, for example. The navigation system would 'hear' the same thing in any accent, despite the roads being a 15-minute drive apart. 


"Postal addresses were designed to sort mail hundreds of years ago, for which they do a fantastic job, but they weren’t designed for an increasingly mobile population or the expanding eCommerce market."


The what3words difference

works dividing the world in its entirety – into 3m x 3m grid squares and giving each one a unique 'three word identifier' to take the place of an address. One that could take you directly to your required entrance or parking space, rather than the 'centre' of the nearest building. The what3words algorithm essentially converts GPS coordinates into words. So, instead of typing, or saying: “51.520847, -0.19552100” you could simply say: “filled count soap”.


It can be used for all sorts of things, from directing a car to having a pizza delivered to a park bench, to locating where your friends have camped during a hike. There has already been some significant traction in its use in emergency services, where an injured person has been able to tell paramedics exactly where they are – especially useful when the postal address is unknown. Now, over 60% of emergency services in the UK use it, with that number set to increase.


The long-term goal is to be the new standard for global addresses. That way:


"Everyone in the world - in cities, on remote islands or even ger tents on the Mongolian plains - has a simple and reliable address they can use whenever they need it. We want everyone to use their three-word address anywhere where you'd enter a traditional address. That could be in eCommerce checkout pages, food delivery apps, ride hailing apps, car sat navs and also mapping apps." Giles Rhys Jones, Chief Marketing Officer.


The driverless benefits

The business and personal benefits to more accurate and user-friendly location identification in general is huge – but what of the driverless impact? Well, according to the minds behind w3w:


"[This] is a perfect solution for drone deliveries and autonomous vehicles. A street address is far too broad an area for a drone to know where to land, and an autonomous vehicle will need an incredibly precise location to know where to end its journey, far more so than a street address allows."


And as for its integration with driverless vehicles? Well, that has already begun:


"[Our] technology has now been built into #AccessibleOlli, allowing passengers to simply say three words to navigate to any 3m x 3m square in the world. Olli is a self-driving shuttle built by Local Motors and enhanced by IBM Watson. The project is finding ways for people with disabilities or impaired mobility to benefit from the autonomous vehicles of the future." Giles Rhys Jones, Chief Marketing Officer.


If you consider the fact that driverless cars only really work when door-to-door collections and drop-offs are possible too, what3words could well be the latest missing piece in the autonomous driving puzzle.


For anyone who's interested in trying out what3words for themselves, there's a free app available on the app store. It can even work offline. All you need is a GPS location, and it will tell you exactly where you are and exactly where you need to be.

Do you think this method of navigation will take off? If not, why? Join the debate, and make your voice heard.


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