Towards a driverless future: How Mapillary is teaming up with Siemens to teach streetcars to see in a fully autonomous depot

Mapillary is teaming up with Siemens, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, and others to make driverless streetcars in a self-operating depot a reality. The project takes place in Potsdam and will over the course of three years teach a driverless streetcar to get from A to B with the help of sensor fusion and street-level imagery that Mapillary is turning into map data to allow the streetcar to see.

When we think about the future of mobility, many of us think of autonomous cars. But even though carmakers and researchers across the globe are making headway in teaching cars to understand their surroundings and act appropriately, the unorganized, and unpredictable street environments in city centers make this an incredibly difficult task. Simply put, we’re still far away from a fully autonomous future.

Luckily, not all vehicles are cars. Streetcars drive around city centers, but, unlike cars, they operate in a more structured setting. Streetcars don’t have to worry about when to make a turn or whether it’s icy conditions or not. They’re restricted by the rails they’re on, which means that they will be in much fewer unpredictable situations than a car would be.

That’s why we’re so happy to join a research project led by Siemens and partially funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure to build and test driverless streetcars as part of building the world’s first fully autonomous streetcar depot. The project takes place in Potsdam, Germany, and will be rolled out over the next three years. Mapillary’s job is to turn street-level imagery and other data captured by ViP, the Potsdam railway company, into the map data that will allow the streetcar to see and understand its surroundings.

The streetcar will run from parking slots to the washing area within the depot and will learn how and where to stop for maintenance in a loop that accumulates to several kilometers. There will be few surprises for the streetcar in this setting, yet it resembles the kind of street scene we’re used to seeing, with street features including lamp posts, other streetcars or buses, and pedestrians in the depot’s outdoor area.

Like most projects we work on, this is in collaboration with others. Mapillary’s job is to fix the streetcar’s map and make sure that the streetcar understands what it’s seeing. Siemens is developing the technology for the streetcar, whereas ViP provides the actual streetcar and depot infrastructure as well as the data that we need to build the streetcar’s map.

The project is partially funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Codewerk, and the Institute for Climate Protection, Energy, and Mobility are also taking part in the project.

The old days, where maps were used solely for humans to get from A to B, are long gone. Mobility is changing with full speed ahead and map demands are changing with it. Although it will be a while before we get to a fully autonomous future, autonomous streetcars and self-operating depots are a significant step in the right direction.

/Peter Kontschieder, Director of Research

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