Traffic is a massive problem in any city. Governments have implemented methods to try and deal with it but few appear to have proved succesful. In-car satnav manufacturer TomTom, however, believes they can succeed where governments have failed.
Satnav companies had once enjoyed significant levels of success in the consumer tech world with personal navigation devices the fastest growing gadget market to date. But then along came Google and Apple, who’s free phone-based directions saw many ditching the satnav for the rapidly growing swiss army knife smartphone in their pocket.
To keep their heads above water, satnav manufacturers have had to rely increasingly on specific functions which made them stand out from the competition and it's through this need that industry leaders TomTom have developed a highly complex traffic management system to draw potential customers toward their products.
TomTom currently collects driver data anonymously to create more complex route databases, some of which have become so comprehensive that TomTom can determine the exact time of day to set out on your journey. In fact, TomTom has so much faith in their tech that they reckon they could better London’s controversial congestion zone. On the 20th floor of London's Euston Tower, on the very northern edge of the Zone itself, TomTom MD Corinne Vigreux sat down with Pocket-lint to explain exactly how.
“Any solution involves tax payers having to pay - either congestion charge, building new roads or toll roads. We think technology can help without making people pay more. So, we're attacking traffic. We want to reduce it by 5 per cent.”
Vigreux believes that TomTom's solution would be cheaper and more effective to the current traffic easing measures but the company's ambitions are bigger than just London. Their analysis shows that if only 10 per cent of Britons were to adopt one of their connected systems, TomTom could reduce congestion for everybody.
Currently roads like the M6 and M1 boast some of the worst traffic in the country according stats published by real time traffic info providers Trafficlink. Accidents are one of the primary causes of major tailbacks in the UK but it's just those kinds of jams that TomTom’s real-time HD traffic info system was designed to help drivers avoid.
“What's important is that we link that information to the routing” says Vigreux taking a sip from her take-out coffee.
The combination of the two, she goes on to explain, is what results in a constantly updating system which adapts to avoid traffic as it actually occurs but, despite this admittedly impressive system, with rumours that Apple plans to create their own traffic information and with Google Maps for Navigation set to implement traffic avoidance too, TomTom looks to have a relatively difficult future ahead.
With that in mind, you might expect the smartphone giants to keep their distance from companies like TomTom but apparently, that's not the case. Currently Google uses a large number of Tele Atlas maps across the globe - with Tele Atlas entirely owned by TomTom - and it's only the US that's TomTom map-free. Whether TomTom will still have this life line when that 5 year agreement runs out in 2013, is another thing.
All the same, in order to get one up on the free smartphone offerings, TomTom is now looking to points of interest searches as their next unique selling point. The company already implements a POI search function online and plans to migrate that to their in-car systems in the future.
“TomTom has something called 'local search' which we will introduce soon, the advantage is that it is like Google search but it is localised.”
POIs, however, unlike TomTom’s HD Traffic is already available in a whole range of apps on the smartphone. Consider things like AroundMe which offer a hyper-local phone based point of interest search amongst many others, and that leads TomTom back to traffic once more - something that the company itself seems to have recognised with it organizing a forum based entirely around it in Amsterdam this October.
“We are putting together a panel of experts” explains Vigreux. “We are creating a foundation. We're being ballsy about this but we can’t do everything on our own, so we are creating a consortium of companies to try and reduce traffic with us. The trouble is that not many companies are doing this seriously.”
And there seems to lie the problem that many other satnav manufacturers face. What appears like a concerted effort amongst navigation companies to take on Google and Apple has actually resulted in many having to bow down to TomTom’s traffic technology. Few others have a comprehensive enough system required to draw potential buyers away from their free smartphone maps.
“Traffic is complex and we are very advanced in the way we deal with it. Everybody is trying to confuse the consumer and, at the end of the day, people will realise what the advantage is of having good traffic information.”
TomTom knows this and has mounted a "break free from traffic" campaign, fronted by John Cleese. The manufacturer is also offering £50 towards one of their own connected devices when a competitor's is traded-in in exchange.
Ultimately, though, it will be ease of use that sees the satnav manufacturer pull through and, perhaps in the short term, a lack of blanket mobile broadband connectivity. For many, the smartphone still remains a complicated gadget, but in-car navigation has been adopted by the far less tech savvy.
TomTom has nailed their user experience, taking care of all the complexities of traffic, directions and points of interest, whilst getting the driver to their destination with minimum fuss. But as the smartphone gets ever easier to use and more and more consumers discover its mapping potential, the shelf-life of a satnav seems ever more precarious.
In car satnav? Or smartphone directions? Let us know..