Hivemapper reveals new Bee dashcam as its latest weapon against Google's map dominance

The Hivemapper Bee dashcam

Mapping startup Hivemapper will launch a new dashcam later this year that its co-founder believes will speed up efforts to claw market share away from Google.

The new Hivemapper Bee camera, revealed Wednesday, is part of the company's years-long push to decentralize mapping and make map data more affordable and accessible. Hivemapper also hopes the camera will help it expand beyond its core customer base of ride-hail and delivery drivers to more owners of corporate fleets, potentially supercharging its ability to capture fresher, more valuable mapping data.

The company has already made notable progress using data captured from its previous dashcam models mounted in the cars of thousands of ride-hail and delivery drivers. Hivemapper announced, in conjunction with the new camera, that its community of contributors have mapped 8 million kilometers (5 million miles) of roads worldwide in 16 months -- a milestone reached four times faster than it took Google to cross with Street View, according to the company. Hivemapper has said it wants to cross 10 million kilometers by early 2024, and tells TechCrunch it expects to hit that mark in April.

In general, the Bee is meant to be a more hands-off or "passive" camera. It's weather-sealed and more robust, to the point that drivers can mount it outside their car if they wish. It also no longer needs to connect to the Hivemapper smartphone app to upload footage to the company's servers. The Bee does more on-device processing to the data it captures, too. All this is meant to make the Bee more attractive to corporate fleet customers, CEO Ariel Seidman tells TechCrunch in an interview.

The Bee is better than Hivemapper's current cameras in other ways, with a larger GPS antenna for more precise positioning, and the ability to shoot 4K footage at 30 frames per second. Preorders begin today and Hivemapper plans to start shipping the camera in the third quarter of this year. A version with an LTE chip will cost $549 while a Wi-Fi-only variant runs $449.

"Google can only refresh their maps once a year, once every couple of years," due the high-tech, high-cost nature of its vehicles, Gabe Nelson, Hivemapper's head of operations tells TechCrunch in an interview. He says Hivemapper's crowdsource community can "build up the kind of raw materials of mapmaking far, far faster." Nelson says he expects that rate to accelerate as it works through a backorder list of more than 15,000 customers and starts shipping the Bee.

But Hivemapper isn't just trying to capture as many of the world's roads as possible. "The holy grail is frequency," Seidman says. "If you go to, let's say, Scottsdale, Arizona right now and you pick a random spot. We probably see that 80 to 100 times a year. Google sees that maybe once every 14 to 18 months."

Not only does that improve the mapping data that Hivemapper turns around and sells to customers, but it also opens up new business opportunities. Late last year the company launched Scout, a "location monitoring tool" that lets customers "mark" a location and receive images every time a Hivemapper driver passes by. Customers can even place a "bounty" on locations to incentivize drivers to pass by it more often.

The customers of Hivemapper's cameras should be better off with the Bee, too, according to the company. Hivemapper compensates contributors with a token called Honey, which recently got listed to Coinbase's exchange. The company says the Bee will create higher-quality map data that is less likely to be rejected upon submission. (Hivemapper lets people do quality assurance checks on map data and perform labeling in exchange for Honey tokens, and also uses AI to do some of this as well.) And making the camera a bit more autonomous -- like auto-uploading data -- means contributors will be less likely to forget to do it themselves.

Of course, pitching people on being rewarded with tokens is not as easy now as it was a few years ago when the web3 craze briefly took hold. Nelson says there are plenty of people who want to buy a Hivemapper camera for other reasons.

"I think what we've really tried to say is, look, if you're a professional driver, if you're an Uber driver or Lyft driver or Amazon flex driver, and you already need this dashcam device because it provides you safety and other capabilities, then this is a great device because it provides those capabilities and it also rewards with this token," Nelson says. "For a lot of them, they actually enjoy the experience of building something that they can see themselves."

It's a step back from the company's rah-rah talk in 2022 of the token creating "loyalty" and "passion," though an understandable one.

"I think people want to be fairly rewarded for the data that they're contributing, as they should be," Nelson says. "But there has to be, especially in the case of a dash cam, there has to be other value utility to the driver that they're getting above and beyond just a token."