Startup Watch: Mapbox

Forbes has a short post on a company called Mapbox, which offers maps to thousands of mobile apps, and is now releasing an autonomous vehicle product called Mapbox Drive.

What caught my eye here is the distinction between top-down and bottom-up map creation.

Traditionally, mapping has been a top-down exercise. Surveyors go out and measure the land, or, more recently, Google sends out special mapping vehicles to collect Street View data.

The Mapbox approach seems to be more bottom-up, utilizing user data to build maps.

This raises some privacy and usability issues, but it’s fundamentally more scalable than a top-down solution.

I should note that I ill-informed about the state of the art in mapping, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Google and HERE and other mapping companies are playing around with similar bottom-up technology, too.

The problem is that with user-generated data you have to take what you can get from users, without the control that comes in the top-down world. And whether the user data will contain everything Mapbox needs to create automotive-grade maps is an open question.

But this top-down vs. bottom-up question is going to come up a lot in autonomous vehicle engineering, and this seems like an interesting case study to watch.

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