Mapbox Hires Former Tesla Autopilot Designer to Rethink Driverless-Car Maps

April 25, 2018

Brennan Boblett, who helped pioneer the look of touch screen interfaces in increasingly autonomous vehicles, is joining well-funded startup Mapbox Inc. to help create digital maps for passengers in driverless cars.


Mapbox provides mapping and location-search technology to a variety of companies including messaging-app developer Snap Inc. and General Electric Co. In October, it raised $164 million in a round led by SoftBank Group to expand its efforts into the automotive industry.


Mr. Boblett spent several years as a designer at auto maker Tesla Inc., leading a team that created the interfaces of digital touch screens that rest on the dashboards of the electric vehicles, including how the user interacted with the company’s semiautonomous Autopilot system.


He also worked for about a year at Uber Technologies Inc., where he worked on the user interface for autonomous cars and redesigned the ride-hailing service’s driver app that deals heavily with mapping, according to his online resume.


Even if the cars of the future drive themselves, passengers will still need maps. Autonomous-car developers such as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors Co.’s Cruise Automation have paid increasing attention to the vehicle’s cockpit, understanding how the vehicle will need to communicate the world to passengers with changing needs.


“The map needs to be the canvas that communicates to the human about what is going on,” said Eric Gundersen, chief executive of Mapbox.


The maps must not only convey how the trip is progressing but also provide reassurance to the passengers, who may not be completely comfortable with the idea of giving up control of the vehicle.


Waymo’s interface, demonstrated last fall, for example, includes an animated icon of its driverless van navigating the road with other cars represented by blue rectangles and pedestrians as glittering ghostlike characters. Cruise showed a similar interface in its demo last fall, though with less detail.


Mapbox will be challenged to convince auto makers its maps are a viable alternative. Alphabet’s Google, which has a jump-start in autonomous-vehicle development, provides mapping data for many companies’ apps. German auto makers Daimler AG , BMW AG and Volkswagen AG’s Audi jointly acquired their own mapping business from Nokia in 2015.


Mapbox, founded in 2010, says it provides mapping technology to about 1.2 million developers, and collects about 250 million miles of anonymized road data daily that power the company’s maps with real-time information. It was born out of Mr. Gundersen’s efforts to create layered maps for nonprofits and government agencies to help track malaria outbreaks in Zambia and to support elections in Pakistan.


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