Mobile Traffic Information: Smartphone Apps in the Fast Lane

Dr Gareth Evans explores how GPS and smartphone technology are resulting in a wave of mobile traffic applications.


If you examine the number of hours an average person spends behind the wheel and collate that to the growing number of smartphone users, the numbers speak for themselves. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a typical driver in the US travels around 15,000 miles a year by car; although this is more than three times government estimates for the UK, the fact remains that according to the latest figures, the average Briton spends nearly 40 minutes of every day behind the wheel.

At the same time, a recent report by the digital information provider, comScore revealed that smartphone ownership in the US rose by 21% - up to 45.4 million - in the three months to February 2010, compared with the previous three-month period. The use of apps is, unsurprisingly, rising too. The picture is broadly the same elsewhere, a similar study by the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA), which finds some 71 million users, each of whom spends an average of an hour a day online. As congestion increases and journey times mount, it is small wonder that the Highways Agency's iPhone traffic app has become the UK's fourth most popular free application from Apple's App Store, with over 50,000 downloads in the first month.

Convergence and connectivity

Part of the reason for the trend lies in the nature of the apps store concept and the easy convenience of what David Levine, director of next generation services at road traffic information specialist ITIS Holdings, describes as "single-button-press software". However, he is quick to explain that there is no single driver. "We've seen a convergence of a whole variety of things - simplified configuration, GPS technology, better batteries and the phones themselves look good. There're the social aspects too - people are much more used to living connected lives."

Alison Fennah, EIAA executive director clearly agrees. "Better devices and connectivity as well as enhanced consumer motivation all started coming together in 2009 to improve and extend the overall online experience." Now it seems the race is on to cascade that benefit to users, through a spate of new and specifically designed technologies - and integration holds the key.

"It is small wonder that the Highways Agency's iPhone traffic app has become the UK's fourth most popular free application."

Integrated information

In Australia, for example, Sygic has joined with Intelematics to provide real-time traffic updates for its voice-guided, "turn-by-turn" navigation applications, offering the country's first-ever national traffic service for a navigation app on the iPhone.

The information itself is drawn from Australia's first specialist digital traffic channel, and includes detailed data on traffic congestion, major road works, road closures, incidents and accidents. Assimilating this within the apps allows users to circumvent problems thanks to suggested alternative routes on-the-drive, while Sygic's Mobile Maps and Aura apps also help keep drivers dynamically informed about road conditions.

In the words of Adam Game, Intelematics Australia's CEO, "the sophistication of the Sygic navigation apps integrated with the SUNA Traffic Channel makes this offering a great way for users to receive detailed traffic information via their smartphone."

The tide for integrated information is clearly surging. Dutch company Tom-Tom, for example, has released its own turn-by-turn personal navigation app for the iPhone 3G and 3GS, marrying in-house geo-mapping data with advanced directional algorithms and IQ Routes technology to discern the quickest possible route. Embracing all road segments and supporting multiscreen modes and multitouch controls - tap, pinch and swipe - the system is said to enable users to cut more than a third from their journey times. As GPS-only dedicated units increasingly cede place to ever-smarter devices, many observers see the market for apps with navigational functionality as one that is primed to explode.

Platforms and developers

It is not only iPhone users that are being catered for; despite the evident popularity of Apple's offering, other platforms have carved their own niches in the smartphone market. In the UK, for instance, the RAC offers Android versions of its Traffic and Traffic Plus software too, while ITIS has launched a free app for Symbian-powered mobile devices.

"Sygic has joined with Intelematics to provide real-time traffic updates for its voice-guided, 'turn-by-turn' navigation applications."

Nevertheless, for developers, collating the most-up-to-the-moment information available from a range of potential sources such as road traffic agencies and directly collected vehicle data across a range of platforms is not without its problems. As Michael Hill, CEO of the New York-based PrimoSpot, explains, "the biggest issue app developers are dealing with on all platforms is fragmentation, it's a huge issue with RIM, a big issue with Android and an upcoming issue with iOS. So far Apple has been the smartest about it - it makes smart decisions."

Tackling the challenge, however, clearly has some significant commercial benefits, not least because the underpinning technology is readily transferable and almost entirely territory independent. "We have built a system that scales up with minor changes anywhere in the world," says Hill.

Beyond congestion

Of course, mobile traffic information is not just about where you happen to be going, nor, indeed, is it all about cars. There are a growing number of apps for a range of related areas including accident reporting and traffic injury mapping (TIM) - though presently the datasets are chiefly limited to the US and UK. Additionally, as the use and profile of bicycles grow, new apps are appearing aimed at riders too, providing a map-driven insight into bike lanes, bike racks and repair facilities.

For car drivers, however, the end of journey all too often descends into a nightmare quest to find that elusive parking place, which is where apps from the likes of PrimoSpot can help, by displaying where you can - and cannot - park, depending on the time of day. Currently, much of this depends on prior intelligence gathering and only reflects where parking is legal, rather than guaranteeing a free space, but Hill's team are working to make cloud sourcing a workable reality. "Getting cars and traffic signs talking to each other to make for smarter data analysis," he suggests, could make all the difference.

"Mobile traffic information is not just about where you happen to be going, nor, indeed, is it all about cars."

Levine too sees the information landscape inexorably changing - "morphing away from standalone traffic apps and into an integrated navigational aid". He believes that with car manufacturers themselves exploring ways to embed the technology, the potential amount of information that future systems will be able to share with the network will be enormous.

"The unprecedentedly high volumes of granular-level information gained by analysis of road speeds, braking patterns and weather sensors will enable traffic information to ascend to a new paradigm of quality and reliability. "A connected car is like having a full probe at road level," he says.

Some of this is possible already, and the rest may not be very far away. At the September 2010 Future World Symposium in London, Steve Wainwright, European manager at Freescale Semiconductor, said the car was "probably going to be the most computer-intensive possession that we will have." With the US having already apportioned part of the radio spectrum for inter-car communication - and Europe looking to make a similar decision shortly - he foresees a growing interchange of car-to-car data on road conditions. If so, then the era of mobile traffic information is only just beginning.