what3words: the future of driverless navigation?
Technology and Business
One year ago, we spoke to Giles Rhys Jones, what3words’ Chief Marketing Officer, to better understand how navigation and navigation tech, was adapting for the modern world. Our staff writer Phil explores what has changed in this time.
Looking ahead to a future where our pizzas might arrive that bit warmer thanks to the driver not getting lost in the field next door, we’ll be asking:
what3words is a simple way of navigating to a very precise location, swapping complicated grid references like GPS coordinates [I assume] for three random words. These words are the decoded using an app, giving the location down to 3 x 3m squares – less exact than GPS but often way better than just a street address. It is designed for a variety of applications, from emergency response to navigation and delivery in areas with limited postal information.
However, it isn’t easily understandable for everyday use by humans. For example, your location could be “tree.dog.house”, which is nonsense to a person, but makes perfect sense to a computer with the correct decoding software, which can then be displayed on a map for humans to understand. This makes what3words very much a tech-oriented way of navigating.
Is anyone using what3words yet?
Car manufacturers certainly seem to have seen the precision benefits that what3words offers. Indian and Chinese carmakers Tata Motors and WM Motors are now beginning to incorporate the system into car navigation technologies, while Ford and Mercedes Benz have already been using the app for some time.
Vitally, it is the options this brings for voice command that seems most appealing to drivers. As what3words founder Chris Sheldrick says, “We have increasingly come to expect a level of connectivity and services that matches our smartphone’s and home voice assistant levels of accuracy.” Chief Marketing Officer Giles Rhys Jones agrees: “It’s a perfect solution for drone deliveries and autonomous vehicles”
It is true that, as Giles explained, “an autonomous vehicle will need an incredibly precise location to know where to end its journey, far more so than a street address allows," but why would an autonomous vehicle use what3words over GPS co-ordinates which could be easily programmed and understood the computer-powered car?
The answer to this is simple – humans. Though many journeys could be made without direction, or using stored locations, humans will still need a way to accurately convey a new, precise, destination to driverless cars of the future.
And for this, what3words has proved incredibly useful. Three-word addresses are 25% faster to enter by voice than street addresses and can now be entered in 35 languages. Emmanuele Spera, CEO and co-founder of Next Future Transportation, is convinced of its benefits. “what3words is fundamental for driverless cars to be a success,” he says, “you can’t call a driverless car and explain where the precise entrance to your apartment block is.” Similarly, you can’t explain to an AV where you are waiting for collection if it’s arrived at the wrong spot. Precise communication is needed for a driverless future to become our reality, and though autonomous vehicles could handle GPS co-ordinates, humans cannot.
As predicted by Giles last year, what3words is also having a huge impact on our emergency services across the globe. An impressive 94 UK emergency services are now using the app as an aid to finding people in crisis and it has already been successfully used to send paramedics to precise spots and narrow down the scope of rescue operations.
Have any what3words competitors emerged?
Absolutely. The What Free Words website, an attempt by disgruntled anonymous developers to make potentially life-saving system open-source, emerged earlier this year, but has since been taken down. However, the fact remains that the criticism remains. If what3words or a copycat alternative that isn’t instantly shut down by legal eagles were to become fully open source, then it becomes a more attractive proposition for OEMs and driverless tech developers.
Then there’s Plus Codes. Google thought what3words was a good idea, so they silently rolled out this alternative form of location sharing into Google Maps. There are a few differences, for example with the code format, which consists of six random letters broken into two components, but the big challenge to the what3words crown is the fact that Plus Codes is completely open source – no ownerships, no limits, and no exclusivity, meaning it can be used online or even printed out and fixed in remote locations for users without internet access.
On a more humorous note, the what3words system has been parodied by other developers using the same concept and OpenMaps grids, but with more ‘select’ word choices. what3f*** ensures that only profanities can be used to give a location (and has been since closed down by a legal response), and what3emojis does the same, replacing words with the small pictures we’re used to seeing on our phones.
Will what3words have an impact on driverless cars in the future?
It is clear that what3words makes communicating a precise location a straightforward task, and that it could prove useful in autonomous vehicles of all kinds, but is there another way? As we are all increasingly connected and are so rarely beyond reach of either our own devices or others which can monitor our location, we must ask whether using such an app to pinpoint our own, or any other, location will be necessary for much longer.
We already share so much data in relation to our location (just think, how many retailers, delivery services and other organisations have you shared your address with?) that it doesn’t seem too farfetched to think our location could be monitored without us actually having to share it afresh through systems such as what3words. If you’re a Google user, your location is pretty much known at all times anyway. Couldn’t we simply order a car to ‘home’ and ask it to take us to ‘work’ without having to specify the address of either place?
We could even give our cars the option to choose for us. For example, ‘take me to a pizza restaurant’ could mean the car has decide between the highest rated pizza place in town, the one we visit most, or the cheapest one if our bank account is linked to the car’s AI!
Either way, for now, and a year on from our chat with Giles, it seems that what3words could present some exciting opportunities for automation. The company’s goal, as Giles said, “for everyone to use their three-word address anywhere you’d enter a traditional address” certainly hasn’t been achieved yet, and the concept of humans even having to think about where they’re actually going could be taken out of our hands if our cars are smart enough.
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