Google’s cars return to German roads, but not for Street View

Yesterday, when I was walking down to my local Berlin food market at lunchtime, I saw a child pointing at a strange but familiar vehicle rolling down the road. It looked like a Google Street View car – which was a surprise, as Google hasn’t been collecting Street View imagery in Germany since 2011.

As I subsequently learned, [company]Google[/company] did indeed put its cars back on German roads this week. However, it’s only using them to keep Google Maps up to date, ensuring that the service is showing the correct street names and routing information. Street View remains off the menu.

Germans can be a tad touchy about privacy, and many objected to the rollout of Street View in the country. Even after Google started automatically blurring faces and number plates, it was forced to give Germans the option of having their houses blurred out as well – something hundreds of thousands of people took the firm up on.

However, this was a costly business, with Google needing to hire temporary workers to manually blur out selected buildings. It also didn’t stop people trying to sue the U.S. company over alleged privacy infringement. So, in 2011, Google said it was giving up on Street View in Germany – the pre-existing images remain online, but they haven’t been updated in three years.

In a recent post, Google said its cars would be back on the road from the start of December in the following cities: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Bremen, Leipzig, Dresden, Hanover, Nürnberg, Duisburg, Bochum, Wuppertal and Bielefeld.

The idea is to expand coverage to other regions of Germany in 2015. However, the post stressed:

We know there is great interest in our camera cars. They are the same cars that we used in the past to take images for Street View. In the coming journeys, we will only use the images to improve Google Maps, and we have no plans to release them.

As much of a privacy fan as I am, I’ve always found the German reaction to Street View to be somewhat over-the-top. If you can see a building façade from the street, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be shown online too, in what is frequently a very useful service.

With the images being so out of date now, they’re frequently useless if you’re trying to remember which restaurant it was you liked so much on that one street. The house-blurring technique that Google tried would also have annoying knock-on effects: If one person in an apartment block wanted the frontage obscured on Street View, everyone else would have to live with that too, like it or not.

Still, Google’s not the only one to find pain in trying to provide useful street imagery. Its Russian rival, [company]Yandex[/company], encountered an amusing conundrum when creating its version of Street View in Turkey. Yandex’s system also automatically blurs out faces, but Turkey is full of images of the statesman Kemal Ataturk, whose visage it is illegal to desecrate. That meant the Russian firm had to go through all of its street imagery to manually un-blur Ataturk’s face wherever they could find it.

No joke: Now Germany wants to kill Bing Maps too

Microsoft’s Bing StreetSide service was offering a welcome replacement for Google’s out-of-date Street View imagery in Germany, but now privacy complaints have seen it taken offline. When will somebody realize these complaints have gone too far?

Hey Google, have you seen the LEGO Street View robot?

For those who ever wanted their own Street View car, similar to Google’s camera on wheels used to capture images for Google Maps, there’s now a small robotic version made out of LEGOs. It’s another example of the growing opportunities that connectivity and sensors bring us.