TomTom maps out revamp with bet on self-driving cars

Natalia Drozdiak
Bloomberg News

Once a household name for its satellite navigation for cars, TomTom NV has taken a backseat in recent years as smartphones, loaded with apps like Google maps, surged in popularity.

Now the Dutch digital mapping company figures your car needs directions more than you do. In recent years TomTom has been building high-definition or “dynamic” maps for self-driving cars. It’s a decision that could help it challenge tech platforms, like Alphabet Inc.’s Google, as cars get more autonomous capabilities.

TomTom's autonomous car sees through LiDARs, radars and stereo cameras. Its HD Map technology enables the car to see far beyond these sensors and make smarter decisions more efficiently, the company says.

“We used to make maps for humans, but now we make maps for robots,” Alain De Taeye, member of TomTom’s management board, said at a journalist briefing in Amsterdam.

TomTom’s share price peaked in 2007 at around 100 euros a share. But this summit coincided with the launch of the iPhone. A year later, TomTom reported sales of more than 12 million personal navigation devices, its record high.

By 2011, it announced a restructuring program that included forced lay-offs to counter lower sales and in 2017, TomTom took a 169 million-euro ($186 million) write-down on its consumer unit. It’s share price has since hovered at around 20 euros.

TomTom now finds itself with several deep-pocketed rivals battling for the future of car navigation, including Apple, Google and HERE Technologies, the digital mapping company controlled by BMW AG and other German car makers.

In a blow for TomTom, longtime partner Renault SA and associates Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. last year signed on with Google’s Android operating system to supply standard-definition maps.

On a quest to claw its way back, TomTom is ditching unwanted business lines, like the Telematics fleet-management business, and doubling down on HD maps. TomTom says it’s been able to differentiate itself from competitors on HD maps by being independent and not having an advertising-based business model like Google’s.

In addition to sensors and other features, HD maps are an important part of autonomous driving, which can incorporate different levels of human assistance — from very little to none whatsoever in even the harshest weather conditions.

HD maps, stored on a car’s computer, replicate every lane, guard-rail, road edge and pole a vehicle sees, helping cars locate their positions within centimeters. Those features are critical to avoid crashing into nearby cars, but they also help the car discern which traffic light at a cross-section it should obey, or identify a speed sign hidden by a truck.

TomTom has announced HD tie-ups with Baidu Inc. on its Apollo driverless project, and with Renault’s SYMBIOZ autonomous driving program.