It is 5: 20 p.m. in Munich, Germany - the height of rush hour. I have 30 minutes to get to the airport to meet a visiting dignitary - my mother. To make the trip, I'm counting on BMW Assist, the latest in Bavarian technology for real-time traffic guidance. The vehicle's on-board navigator gets continuous traffic updates from the system's central office. Armed with computer-generated alternate routes, the motorist can avoid highway snags. At least, that is how it works in theory.
As I pull out of the garage in a borrowed BMW 735i sedan, the system - speaking in the tone of a well-educated Englishwoman - instructs me to take the usual route. I arrive at the autobahn's on-ramp, only to slow to a crawl. Five minutes later - when it is too late to choose another route - the computer warns me of 'stationary traffic ahead.'
This is a common problem with Germany's fast-growing traffic advisory service. The system's architect, Tegaron Telematics GmbH, is a joint venture between DaimlerChrysler Services and Deutsche Telekom. Established in 1997, it developed Tokyo's traffic information system. In Germany, sensors were installed on every second highway overpass to monitor traffic.
That enables Tegaron and other service providers to transmit constant traffic updates to customers. Fewer than 20,000 motorists now use dynamic navigation. But Tegaron predicts that within three to five years, every new car in Germany will have dynamic route guidance. With similar systems being launched in France, the United Kingdom and Italy, this service seems certain to spread quickly across Europe.
To speed its European expansion, Tegaron has formed the International Traffic Data Alliance. Other partners include Mediamobile in France, and Cue in the United Kingdom. This alliance has created a common operating standard to ensure that motorists can use the same system throughout Europe. Later this year, the alliance will introduce a new radio-based service that will broadcast traffic data to car radios. That data then can be displayed on the car's instrument panel screen. Radio broadcasts are much cheaper than systems that transmit via mobile telephones.
In Europe, the market is expanding. Renault unveiled its Odysline system this year, and Audi will introduce a Tegaron-based system early next year. Blaupunkt will introduce the Travel Pilot this autumn. Travel Pilot uses data supplied by Traffic Master, a British company. Already established in the United Kingdom, Traffic Master is creating a sensor network in Germany to compete with Tegaron.
To improve the accuracy of traffic guidance, service providers are experimenting with an innovation called Floating Car Data. Vehicles equipped with onboard navigators report their location via satellite to a central computer. A traffic center detects traffic jams by monitoring the progress of those cars. Every Mercedes equipped with onboard navigation can be added to the fleet of cars in the network. However, the mass-market introduction of Floating Car Data has been complicated by worries about motorists' privacy.
According to DaimlerChrysler, if 5 percent of the vehicle fleet is equipped with these devices, there would be no need for costly fixed sensors along the highway. But with only 10,000 of these systems in use in Germany, the benefits remain largely theoretical. Although Floating Car Data does not yet offer a competitive edge, I decided to test Mercedes' DynAPS traffic navigator against BMW's unit. Mercedes gets its traffic information from Tegaron, while BMW draws its data from PASSO, a subsidiary of Mannesmann AG. On consecutive days, I drove to the airport, then requested each system to guide me home.
When I encountered heavy airport traffic, each system proposed a different route home. In the case of the Mercedes, the route was quite circuitous. The BMW's route was shorter, but just as congested. The Mercedes system detected traffic congestion more quickly than BMW's, but it did not make difference. Travel time for both units: 45 minutes. Without the aid of an onboard navigator, I managed the same trip the next day in less than 30 minutes.
Despite the technology's growing pains, the auto industry clearly expects motorists to embrace real-time traffic guidance. But sometimes one simply cannot avoid heavy traffic.
Elaine Catton is a free-lance writer based in Munich. You can e-mail her at [email protected]