Saturday, June 03, 2006

Map firm navigates road to keep drivers on right path

location based services

Do you print out driving directions from MapQuest or Google for trips?
If so, there's a good chance the cartoonish-looking maps you pull up on your computer screen come from Tele Atlas NV, a Boston-based company trolling roads to update the maps it sells to Web companies like MapQuest, Google and Yahoo so they won't send you in the wrong direction.
The maps also show up in navigation systems built into cars and in portable devices, and more recently in wireless phones equipped with Global Positioning System technology.
"Navigation is here and now and the popularity is increasingly very rapidly," says Phil Magney, principal analyst at Telematics Research Group in Minnetonka, Minn.
Magney estimates that the number of navigation systems, whether in cars, portable devices or in cell phones, sold in North America will increase nearly 50 percent from 4.5 million in 2006 to 6.7 million next year and to 25 million by 2011. The growth is showing up in the revenue figures of Tele Atlas, which grew 57 percent last year, and of its main competitor, Chicago-based Navteq Corp., where revenue grew 26 percent last year.
Growing demand for digital directions makes the trips to update maps all the more important.
Tele Atlas is in the midst of driving all of the nation's highways, taking an orange Toyota Sienna with four white video cameras and a GPS antenna perched on its roof.
The van takes video footage as it drives up and down highways to capture things including exit signs, new construction, speed limit signs and street names.
That information updates a database that spans 7.3 million miles in North America.
The video footage is among the many ways the company builds its maps.
Digital mapping - which in its infancy in the 1980s consisted of people in vehicles jotting down information about the roads - now also uses sources including satellite images, city tax maps and calls to construction firms working on new developments, says Jon Husby of Tele Atlas.
These are maps many drivers rely on, including Sonya DeVoir, 23, of Detroit.
DeVoir turns to Google Maps at least once a week to find grocery stores or coffee shops near her home.
"I really depend on looking up where I'm going," she says.
DeVoir says she has considered a GPS device, but they can run up to $1,000 and are out of her price range.
With advances in mapping, Husby says more navigation devices will be able to tell drivers to turn at a landmark, like a fast-food restaurant, instead of at just a street name where the sign might be too small to read from the road.
Eventually the technology will give drivers a snapshot of the intersection a driver should turn out of so they know what it looks like before getting there.
"We continue to build more accurate and more lifelike information," into the maps, says Jennifer Winter, a Southfield, Mich.-based account manager with Tele Atlas.
That kind of information could be headed to your cell phone.
More cell phones contain GPS technology - an estimated 15 percent of those shipped by manufacturers in 2006, reports Framingham, Mass.-based tech research firm IDC.
Wireless phones are doubling as navigation devices that give you directions and tell you about where you're headed.
Magney estimates that the number of GPS-equipped phones sold in 2007 will double compared with 2006 to 2.6 million.
Eventually this technology will be everywhere, says Jay Benson, Tele Atlas' vice president of business planning.
Now, Internet-capable phones can give you directions.
But with GPS technology, "it's going to be much more oriented to finding things of importance around you," Benson says.
Future devices
GPS in cell phones: Already offered by some providers, including Sprint and Verizon. Prices top out at $10 a month for services that can tell you, turn-by-turn, directions and find businesses.
Turn left at Taco Bell? Instead of directional turning, navigation systems are starting to use landmarks, like restaurants, in addition to street names to tell people where to go.
Picture your intersection: Eventually navigation systems will show you a photo of the intersection where you need to turn.
Up to the minute: Real-time traffic data delivered to Web sites and wireless phones.
Distracted driving
AAA reminds drivers not to fiddle with phones or portable navigation devices while driving.
• Get directions before you start driving.
• Pull over to use the direction features on your navigation device or wireless phone.
• Leave the navigation to a passenger.

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