You need to pick up friends at an airport, but you don’t know where along the arrivals curb they’re waiting. You’re meeting a client, but you are unsure which entrance to use at their sprawling corporate headquarters. You’re headed to a wedding in a scenic park, but you don’t know exactly know where the ceremony will be held inside its borders. Drivers encounter situations like these every day. They have an address for their intended destination, but it’s not quite good enough to get them there. Actually, it will soon be quite.good.enough, because Mercedes-Benz has figured out a way to spare motorists those headaches.
The German automaker is partnering with a U.K. location company called What3Words, and together they’ll soon deliver more precise guidance to drivers. Engineers at What3Words have divided the entire world into 57 trillion three-meter-by-three-meter (10 by 10 foot) squares. Each has been given a unique address composed of three-word combinations. Starting next spring, Mercedes-Benz will be the first automaker to incorporate the What3Words technology into its new infotainment systems, making three-word navigation a standard feature.
Other automakers have used the technology in limited fashion. Land Rover has utilized it for off-road mapping in the Middle East, and Audi searched for its tagline, Vorsprung durch Technik, during a Q7 launch (that’s vorsprung.durch.technik, in What3Words speak), finding that it belongs to a patch of land in the jungles outside São Paulo, Brazil.
The company announced the development at the 2017 Frankfurt auto show. Using a voice-recognition system, drivers can utter a three-word address, and the navigation system will determine the fastest route to that point. Say wished.impose.placed, for example, and you’ll navigate to a spot on the south side of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Or try blubber.legends.trunks, and you might spot Elon Musk walking through the front doors of Tesla Motors’ headquarters in Fremont, California. Or even better, find yourself at groom.costs.improving, and you’ll find the Car and Driver staff arriving for work at the front door of our Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters.
“In the old system, the old way we mapped the world, we don’t have three-meter accuracy with an address,” said Sajjad Khan, vice president of digital vehicles and mobility for Daimler. “With this, you can specify exactly where you want to meet. You think of the importance of that for big cities or densely populated places, but it’s not only for that. On small islands, for example, or places in Sweden and Finland, there are places where you don’t find addresses easily. Now, with three words, you can get there.” (Similarly, quite.good.enough, that example we cited in the first paragraph, turns out to be in a remote region of Alaska’s enormous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where none of the caribou have mailing addresses.)
“You have to blow up this concept of an address.
It’s almost irrelevant in the next world.”
– Kevin Vasconi, Domino’s Pizza
Mercedes executives spotted the technology in February as part of its inclusion in Startup Autobahn, a tech incubator based in Stuttgart. They were excited enough by the ease of use that it promises drivers that they fast-tracked it for an early 2018 debut.
What3Words was founded in 2013; its system uses up to 40,000 words in 14 different languages. The company’s algorithm uses latitude and longitude coordinates provided by GPS and assigns each square a corresponding three-word identifier. While the addresses aren’t yet common knowledge among consumers, they’re easy to find online and increasingly provided by businesses.
“We’re being used by city guides, tourist authorities, and travel apps,” said Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer for What3Words. “Whenever I travel, I send my Airbnb hosts a link to the map and ask them for the three-word address. A number of Airbnb management businesses are now using us.”
While its initial appearance in automotive products will be marketed as a convenience feature for human drivers, there are fledgling—and arguably, more significant—uses for What3Words around the corner.
Within the next five years, at least according to projections, self-driving taxis may upend the traditional transportation landscape. Hurdles are many, and one of the lesser-discussed challenges is figuring out how human passengers can give a self-driving system specifics on where they want to be dropped off—whether that means scooting up a few feet to avoid a puddle, finding an open curb, or maneuvering to the side entrance of a building.
For delivery services, the final 50 feet of an automated journey will grow even more complex in an autonomous world. Executives and engineers are still in the early stages of figuring out how they’ll determine with precision where autonomous delivery vehicles will drop off packages for customers. They don’t yet have firm answers, but they at least know what doesn’t work: traditional address systems.
“You have to blow up this concept of an address. It’s almost irrelevant in the next world,” said Kevin Vasconi, chief information officer and executive vice president at Domino’s Pizza, where he oversees delivery operations. “Why do we need traditional addresses anymore? We all have GPS in our pockets.”
Beyond vehicles, there are clear potential uses for What3Words technology in the nascent on-demand drone delivery business. U.S. firm Hylio has integrated What3Words into its software and has already made deliveries as part of a pilot project in Latin America.
While the idea of drone deliveries might seem most advantageous for a company like Amazon, which just bought Whole Foods, or other logistics providers such as DHL, FedEx, or UPS, it’s too early to count out Mercedes-Benz, which hinted at early plans to drop packages from drones using the technology.
“You can think of using this in disaster zones or a bunch of other use cases that will be coming,” Khan said. “We believe in the technology itself. We are using it for our car, and we are using it for drone concepts. Maybe you will see that at CES this year.”