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This Could Be Mercedes’ Next Step Toward a Self-Driving Benz

Sep 12, 2017

Owners of new Mercedes-Benz vehicles will soon be able to navigate to an exact destination in the world — whether it's the back alley entrance of a concert hall or a specific entrance to a park to pick up the family — by just saying or typing three words.

The car maker said Tuesday it is adopting an addressing system created by what3words, a startup that has divided the entire world into 57 trillion 3-by-3 meter squares and assigned three words to each one. The addressing system will be embedded in Mercedes' new infotainment and navigation system that is launching in its cars next year. What3words, which was founded in 2013, was able to assign these 57 trillion squares a unique three-word name using an algorithm that has a vocabulary of 25,000 words. Those words are pulled in such a way that any combinations that could be confused are kept apart. The system, which anyone can use via the what3words app, is available in 14 languages.

Loading a traditional street address in car navigation systems today — even modern tech-centric luxury cars — is awkward, what3words CEO Chris Sheldrick told Fortune in an interview ahead of the announcement. Drivers have to use a dial or a series of menu items on a screen to type in an address. And the voice recognition feature can easily misinterpret street names that are similar. "The thing that we give is ultimate simplicity to the automotive world," Sheldrick said. "You've got amazing navigation systems that will avoid traffic and reroute you and yet the whole part of putting in your destination has never really been challenged."

The video below shows how the system would work in a Mercedes.

The system Mercedes is launching next year has also been built into a demo unit on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show, which journalists were able to preview on Tuesday. The announcement is notable for both companies. For the first time, what3words, a fast-growing startup based in London, is going to have its tech embedded in production vehicles — a feat for any small supplier. And Mercedes is signaling where it's headed in the future. At least seven governments, including Nigeria and Mongolia, have already adopted what3words as their national postal addressing system. These early adopters were trying to modernize spotty or non-existent addressing systems that made it impossible to guarantee deliveries would reach their intended destination.

But it's not just developing countries that see value in what3words. A precise addressing system will be necessary if automakers, tech companies, and governments hope to ever see the widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

For example, imagine jumping into a self-driving car — not a human in sight — and giving it an address to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. The car, working only with a general address that covers several city blocks, drops you off on the opposite side from where you're meeting friends. There's no recourse, and so instead you walk the extra 15 minutes around the block. If the same self-driving car used what3words, the user could input the precise location and end up at a side entrance and intended meet-up spot.

"This is a really important step for self-driving cars," Sheldrick said. "When you have no steering wheel or pedal in an autonomous car and you've been deposited near, but not right where you really want to go, that's a serious problem. What we do today with addresses just isn't going to cut it when we get to a fully autonomous scenario."

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