Our Maps Suck And They're Putting Lives At Risk, Feds Tell Tech Companies

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If autonomous driving is going to succeed, those vehicles will need primo data to know how safely move from A to B. According to National Transportation Safety Board, there’s plenty of work to be done, and tech companies are reportedly slow-walking their response.

The NTSB on Monday issued a recommendation asking tech companies to add the locales of 200,000 grade crossings into digital maps, a move sparked by a deadly 2015 crash in California. According to the New York Times, a motorist in a Ford truck was following directions on Google Maps, but he wound up stuck on a railroad track that wasn’t well marked. The driver abandoned his truck, and a commuter train subsequently struck it, killing one and injuring 32 others.


The Times notes that several big companies have promised a prompt response—particularly Google, which agreed to add audio and visual warnings to its Maps app, but has yet to be included. The app has been updated more than two dozen times since, the Times reports.

It’s not just about simply ensuring our tech-equipped robots have superb mapping data. The main point, officials said, is to save lives. From the Times:

In a speech on Sept. 15, Sarah E. Feinberg, administrator of the railroad agency, said many of the recent deaths at rail crossings were not from drivers trying to “beat the train” but were “situations where the driver lost situational awareness, or there weren’t sufficient protections in place to protect the vehicle or provide adequate warning to the driver.”

She chided technology companies for procrastinating on integrating data into mapping applications that “will save many lives.”

Tech companies and automakers have certainly been making moves over the past year to boost their mapping capabilities. General Motors partnered with MobileEye to start writing its own maps; BMW, Audi and Daimler purchased Nokia’s mapping business, and Toyota’s mentioned it wants to log data on everything.


Still, if the auto industry wants to push a pipe dream of autonomous vehicles taking off in the near-future, pristine, up-to-date maps have to be considered a priority. We surely don’t want to see that train track mishap become the norm.

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About the author

Ryan Felton

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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