BEIJING • Would there be sales traffic? Ms Chen Dan had doubts about betting millions of dollars to make high-definition (HD) maps of Chinese roads.
That was until she took charge of the business at NavInfo and saw how they are essential to selfdriving cars, with demand that could reach billions of dollars.
Armed with one of just 14 mapping licences in China, a permit system that locks out foreign rivals, she has built a team that will chart every traffic lane and ramp for 150,000km of highways by the middle of next year.
With the support of tech giant Tencent Holdings, NavInfo is gearing up to battle it out with ventures backed by Alibaba Group Holding and Baidu.
Up-to-the-centimetre accuracy is critical in bringing driverless cars to China and requires a level of detail well beyond the turn-by-turn navigation of Global Positioning System services or Google Maps.
The mainland's autonomous vehicle market could be worth US$500 billion (S$685 billion) by 2030, according to McKinsey & Co. Whoever owns the most detailed maps will have an asset that could be worth billions of dollars.
China aspires to have 30 million autonomous vehicles by the end of the next decade.
Government sensitivity about security and access to key data drove the decision to lock out foreign firms, including Alphabet's Waymo and General Motors' Cruise.
That means anyone looking to sell driverless cars in the world's largest auto market has to find a local partner with maps that can be used by their vehicles.
Developing detailed maps requires collecting and processing enormous amounts of data. At NavInfo, two engineers can convert a Volkswagen Touran into a mapping car in less than five minutes with a detachable set of 360-degree cameras and Lidar sensors.
The sensors on the car's roof shoot out 32 laser beams and measure how the light bounces back - to build a detailed picture of the surroundings.
A two-person crew then takes to the streets, one behind the wheel and the other in the passenger seat with a laptop connected to the sensors, monitoring the feeds.
The process is repeated multiple times in different seasons to cover all conditions and angles.
NavInfo has more than 10 such vehicles collecting all the features of the road, including lanes, tunnels and traffic signs. Some data is processed by algorithms before a team of almost 100 engineers gets involved to improve the accuracy.
NavInfo expects to secure its first orders for HD maps from a premium German carmaker this year, Ms Chen said.
It is also working with Here, a mapping company owned by Daimler, Audi and BMW on a data standard compatible with all of their cars.
The goal of NavInfo's mapping is to make it compatible with Level Four autonomous driving, a term referring to vehicles that can pilot themselves in almost all environments and will stop safely if the human driver does not respond to a request for him to take over.
A car equipped with HD maps could potentially do away with the expense of its own Lidar sensors, which would cut thousands of dollars from the price tag.
The key payoff is expected in 2020, when many carmakers are scheduled to start large-scale production of autonomous vehicles.
Among the other Chinese companies pushing into driverless cars, Baidu has garnered the most attention. It is investing in artificial intelligence and has been named the country's self-driving national champion by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
China's biggest search engine got its mapping licence when it bought a Beijing-based start-up in 2013.
It has launched its Apollo project, a loose grouping of more than 100 driverless-car industry players, including Ford and Hyundai.
For the carmakers, there is plenty of jockeying for position.
GM has chosen Alibaba-owned AutoNavi for its Super Cruise driver-assistance system on Cadillacs that it plans to sell in China.
SAIC Motor, the country's biggest carmaker, bought shares in licence-holder Wuhan Kotei Informatics and formed a joint venture to develop driver-less mapping.