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Better connectivity means better maps, which is better all round

Thanks to developments in connectivity, TomTom could soon provide near real-time mapping services - these could prove especially important for tomorrow’s smart cities, writes Xavier Boucherat

If reports from the 2017 Mobile World Congress Summit are to be believed, commercial deployment of 5G mobile data networks could begin as early as 2020. Greatly increased data capacity and transfer speeds are just two of the drivers behind the expected uptick in the number of connected vehicles on the road. Research from Gartner, an IT research firm, predicts that in 2017, around 21 million vehicles featuring data connectivity will be sold worldwide.

Tomaso Grossi, Senior Product Marketer at TomTom Automotive, suggests that by 2022, annual sales of connected vehicles could rise to over 60 million units.

One of the main consequences of this will be the extension of the driver’s connected life beyond the home, office and smartphone. Suppliers such as TomTom, says Grossi, will find they have many more opportunities as OEMs jostle to differentiate themselves and provide drivers with brand new assistance services.

“The amount of data that can be transmitted will be greatly increased, as well as the speed,” he says. “This is great news for us, as we are effectively in the Big Data business, working with almost half a billion devices providing us GPS info. These include in-built systems, portable systems, telematics units and mobile apps.”

The key for mobility service providers will be asset utilisation. The more trips you can make from the same car, the more profitable the model… and this requires services to send users along the best, quickest routes

Greater connectivity, he continues, will lead to both improved services and new offerings, generally targeted at safety, efficiency and comfort. What’s more, thanks to over-the-air (OTA) updates, TomTom will be able to roll these out far quicker.

“Previously, if a driver wanted to update their navigation system it required a visit to the dealership for a USB or DVD to update the system in-vehicle,” he says. “Cycle times today are much shorter however, and we’re targeting ever shorter cycle times through OTA updates.”

Instant updates

Mapping technology, says Grossi, has come a long way in recent years, noting that only a few years ago, maps were difficult to update, and were fairly static in their reporting. Heavy investment in the transactional map-making engine and platform has improved things, he suggests, but lag still remains between changes on the road and changes on a user’s device.

A combination of faster data communication and improved AI will drive down this lag. Large amounts of data crowd-sourced through sensors such as cameras could be used to detect, for example, road signs, traffic conditions, unexpected elements such as collision incidents, and poor road conditions, such as wet roads. AI can then be used to recognise and categorise these different elements.

“The important thing is to close that loop as fast as possible, and shorten the cycle,” says Grossi. The quicker a map can be updated, the more useful offerings like TomTom’s will become as part of smart-city solutions. Ongoing urbanisation worldwide means that congestion and pollution remain major concerns for city centre inhabitants. “We see that cities in emerging countries in particular are struggling,” says Grossi, “and we want to provide city authorities with the ability to curb that.”

In 2008, TomTom began work on its ‘Traffic Index’, which measures congestion levels in 390 cities across 48 countries. The company’s discoveries underline the scale of the problem – it estimates that since 2008, congestion in city centres worldwide has increased on average by 13%. In 2016, the worst offenders were Mexico City, Bangkok in Thailand, and Jakarta in Indonesia. On average, drivers in Mexico City could expect their journey time during peak hours to take up to 66% longer when compared with a free-flow situation on the road.

Parking space

Meanwhile, figures from Frost & Sullivan estimate that in 2015, the average driver spent 55 hours looking for a parking spot, costing nearly US$600m a year in wasted time and fuel. TomTom already offers off-street parking assistance by directing users to car parks, but connectivity developments mean the company can now offer an on-street service. Launched at the 2016 Paris Motor Show, the service uses GPS data to analyse where and when drivers are looking for spots. It then feeds back the probability of finding a spot in the location, and the amount of time a driver can expect to spend looking.

“This reduces the hassle of driving,” says Grossi, “and this is what TomTom set out to do in the beginning. We analysed the key blockers, the pain points in the driving experience. Traffic is clearly one of them, and we deployed products to address that. Then we looked into the future and asked what new pain points would emerge? Parking was clearly one of them. I think it would be immensely valuable if we can give people back the time they spend looking for a space.”

TomTom is also providing city authorities the tools they need to improve situations on the ground with TomTom City, a web portal that uses data gathered by TomTom where those tasked with helping cities flow can access traffic information, live and historic, and identify hotspots. Like many in the automotive industry,

TomTom is positioning itself to work in the wider sphere of mobility services, and not just with cars. “It’s not just about navigation systems,” says Grossi. “It’s about empowering users to get from A to B as seamlessly as possible, using any transportation means.”

Not everybody in the automotive industry is ready to embrace the newest technologies. Cycle times remain long compared with those in the tech world, and what is required is standardisation

One development that all mapping suppliers have keen eyes on is the rise of services such as ride-hailing and car-sharing in city centres. Grossi identifies 2016 as the year the automotive industry woke up to this trend. Almost all of the major OEMs have set up a mobility service or mobility subsidiary, he says, and those who haven’t have invested in one.

“The key for mobility service providers will be asset utilisation,” he suggests. “The more trips you can make from the same car, the more profitable the model. In this business, variable costs are much more important than fixed costs. Greater asset utilisation requires an operation to run like clockwork, and this requires services to send users along the best, quickest routes.”

Setting standards

Accurate maps capable of updating quickly will also prove essential as further autonomous technology arrives on the roads – a key example, Grossi points out, of connectivity as an enabler of autonomous driving. “These vehicles will require the shortest lead-time possible between changes in reality and changes on a device,” says Grossi, as it will enable vehicles to re-act pre-emptively and avoid traffic build-ups.

For Grossi, issues around autonomous driving present one of the main difficulties moving forward. “Not everybody in the automotive industry is ready to embrace the newest technologies,” he says. “There is still hesitancy among OEMs and Tier 1s with limited interest, or a different view. Cycle times remain long compared with those in the tech world, and TomTom believes what is required is standardisation.”

To that end, TomTom launched the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Interface Specifications (ADASIS) Toolkit, which aims to define standards for ADAS applications with access to map databases.

“We believe the more standardisation within the industry, the easier it will be to establish a clear path towards safe autonomous driving,” he says, concluding that the services enabled by improved connectivity will also speed the industry along the route. “We want to smooth out the driving experience. We started with traffic. Now we’re working with parking, and weather. And ultimately these are stepping-stones towards autonomous driving – the connected car is the key building block for the autonomous car.”