Japan will map expressways in 3D to make way for driverless cars on the road by 2020.

As a start, it will chart 300 kilometres of the main highways. 3D maps provide more accurate data on vehicles’ positioning. This will inform self-driving cars when to slow down or speed up to prevent accidents and traffic congestion.

Sensors on cars help them navigate lanes and prevent crashing into vehicles in front, but they are still prone to errors. They cannot always deal with complex road patterns, like which lane the car should take to exit a highway.

A combination of 3D maps and sensors will help cars navigate multi-lane expressways and busy junctions more accurately.

The project is part of the Japanese Cabinet Office’s cross-government Strategic Innovation Promotion Programme. It has been commissioned to Dynamic Map Planning, which is backed by Mitsubishi Electric and nine other automakers.

It is part of the country’s plans to have self-driving cars on the road in time for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in four years.

Dynamic Map Planning will use a car loaded with surveying equipment to map the layout and inclination of roads. It will also collect details like locations of road signs, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings.

US, German and Dutch companies have taken the lead in developing 3D maps, and now Japan is trying to catch up.

The pilot will capture a small portion of the country’s 1.27 million kilometres of highways, which includes 30,000 kilometers of expressway.

Image by Ken OHYAMA, CC BY-SA 2.0