Smartnav

How would you like to get directions downloaded to your vehicle's navigation system with just a phone call? How about ordering flowers for your girlfriend or boyfriend (or both) while you drive? Most of all, how would you like to receive real-time traffic alerts accompanied by alternate routes that will allow you to avoid traffic congestion?

Hey, who wouldn't, right? These features of the future sound very cool. Well, they are cool but they're not of the future. Drivers in the United Kingdom already benefit from all these features and more in a system called Smartnav, which is offered by Trafficmaster, the UK's leading supplier of live traffic information services.

Smartnav is the first system that can be installed in any vehicle to combine satellite navigation, live traffic information and a "personal assistant" to answer questions, guide you to points of interest, and even take orders for flowers. It operates much like General Motors's On-Star system, but additionally, it offers quickly updated traffic information that enables British drivers to avoid traffic snarls en route. Smartnav combines satellite navigation, mobile telephony technology from Motorola and traffic information taken from Trafficmaster's established network of sensors and cameras that cover over 8,000 miles of the UK's main roads.

The Smartnav system works with push-button simplicity. After punching the on-dash button, the driver is connected to a "personal assistant" (PA), who immediately confirms the location of the vehicle via global positioning data. Once in contact with the PA the driver can request route instructions; ask about options for gas, food, and lodging; and make a request like sending flowers or candy. Unlike other systems that require the driver to remember the route instructions, Smartnav directions are downloaded to the vehicle's on-board system and include road numbers. This provides the motorist with clear and concise directions that other comparable systems are unable to provide.

An important advantage to Smartnav is the fact that it operates in or near "real-time." For instance, it stores maps and calculates routes using central Motorola server software based at Trafficmaster's headquarters, unlike other systems that rely on information stored on a CD. This ensures that mapping information can be updated regularly and motorists are not responsible for purchasing expensive new CDs to maintain accurate information.

When directions are calculated and sent to the vehicle, they take into account the quickest and easiest route using Trafficmaster's predictive, historical, live, and incident traffic information. With the addition of Route Guard, an application that proactively monitors traffic congestion, drivers are alerted to problems and are given the option to choose an alternative route to avoid traffic delays. The system also stores over 90,000 points of interest. So, for example, drivers can be directed to the nearest ATM, hospital, or petrol (what we call gasoline) station, as well as museums, "stately homes," art galleries and other tourist attractions.

When it comes to security, Smartnav has other benefits as well. If the car has a collision or breakdown, a PA can immediately connect the driver to emergency or towing services, giving the vehicle's exact position. For motorists who may worry about driving alone or about the possibility of carjacking, a Smartnav PA is at hand to provide reassurance and with a direct line into the "call centre," operators can talk to the driver and, in the case of theft, locate the vehicle. If, on the other hand, the emergency consists of an intense need to come up with a last-minute gift, Smartnav also offers a range of concierge services enabling drivers to order flowers and champagne from the car and have them delivered nationwide.

How much does all this cost? Trafficmaster Smartnav is priced at £499 (about $780) with an annual subscription charge of £120 ($187). Compared to auto manufacturers' in-vehicle systems, which often cost more than $1,000 plus monthly fees, Smartnav seems like a bargain.


A Boston native who now lives in Villeperce, France, Tom Ripley covers the automotive scene and human behavior for a variety of publications.