Throughout the summer, a Google car travels the roads of Luxembourg to update the data of its mapping service in the Grand Duchy.
If you’ve ever seen her in the streets or on the roads, it’s hard not to notice her. With its blue ball fixed on the roof, the Street View Car does not really go unnoticed. But if you have seen her, know that she too and that there is a good chance that, two or three months after this strange encounter, you will find yourself, previously blurred, on the photos of Street View.
This Google service, which allows you to travel virtually around the world thanks to panoramic images, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. “It was an idea of our co-founder, Larry Page, who first put cameras on a car,” says Michiel Sallaets, communication manager at Google for Belgium and Luxembourg.
From this prototype was born in 2007 Google Street View, which was launched on American roads and then gradually throughout the world. “Today, we are present in more than 100 countries. In 15 years, our cars have circumnavigated the globe 400 times and traveled 16 million kilometres.” A titanic work which has made it possible to collect 220 billion photos but remains in constant evolution.
On the road until September
Because the world does not stop turning after the passage of Google. Towns and countryside continue to evolve and require permanent updating of the database. It is for this reason that the Street View Car is currently criss-crossing the Grand Duchy. Present from July to September in the main cities of the country, the car stopped in Belval this week.
Always changing, the district of Esch-sur-Alzette would require almost a full-time car to allow the American giant to grasp all the developments. With images dating, for certain streets, from September 2013, it was time for the Street View Car to return to the Eschois asphalt. Since its last visit, some buildings have risen from the ground and new cranes are already announcing future changes.
To grasp this new environment, nothing could be easier. Alone in the car, the driver triggers the capture and then follows the route indicated by his GPS. The multiple cameras record the environment all around the car, including the sky, and send them to a device installed in the back seat. “We have high-definition cameras that allow us, for example, to photograph the opening hours on the windows. Lasers also measure the distance between the car and buildings to keep a straight path.
Certain conditions are still necessary to ensure good image capture. Good weather is essential, it must not be too dark and it is impossible to ride in the rain or snow. If in town the car can drive at 50 km/h, it must not exceed 90 on the motorway and make two passes, in one direction then in the other, to capture all the infrastructure.
Automatically blurred faces and plates
Once the images have been recorded, they are sent to Google’s servers, which will reconstruct the car’s route using GPS data. The photos are then aligned to create a continuous panoramic landscape. “This is done automatically thanks to artificial intelligence and the machine learning, but there may be controls and human intervention,” says Michiel Sallaets. “We also automatically blur people’s faces and license plates to respect privacy.”
Because respect for privacy at Google has not always been as advanced as their technology. If data and their use by GAFAM are at the heart of concerns today, the problem already arose ten years ago. In 2010, a scandal erupted around Street View Cars which, using private routers to geolocate themselves, collect WiFi data as they go. Some states will see it as a violation of privacy, forcing the Mountain View firm to explain itself. “We screwed up (We messed up)”, will even admit the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin.
“We fixed this bug. It was not our goal to collect this information,” says Michiel Sallaets. If the case is settled, it will not fail to poison relations between the American and certain countries like Germany which still limits the presence of Street View Cars on its roads. (see box).
But today, with the exception of some deserts and part of the African continent, it is possible to visit the whole world while staying at home. From the peaks of Mont Blanc to Machu Picchu, from Central Park to Kirchberg, Google is everywhere.
In Germany, Google remains at a standstill
If Luxembourg is almost entirely mapped, this is not the case of its Germanic neighbour. Germany has never appreciated that the search engine photographs its inhabitants, even blurred, and their homes. The government therefore forced the firm to also blur the houses of those who wanted it. A colossal task even for the giant who preferred to stop after capturing only twenty major cities. Since then, some municipalities still ask Google to come back to map their streets. But German roads remain mostly invisible on Street View.