TomTom directing drivers to shorter travel times

Nota: This post was originally published on our client-facing blog at Dare in edited form. I love the editors deeply but I wanted to share with you, dear reader, the full vestal version.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the sight of a GPS in a car had the same reaction of someone using an iPad on the train does today. A sort of curious mix of jealousy and cynicism about their efficacy.

And then the prices fell and the world and his wife were getting them for Christmas. From the executive saloon to the student runabout, almost every car sports some sort of touch-screen map these days. It is this progress to ubiquity that has led TomTom to assume a critical mass is being reached such that their latest initiative has a chance of succeeding.

Boldy termed a Traffic Manifesto, the Dutch navigation giant has published its objective of making “better use of [the] existing road capacity” in Europe to “reduce journey times for everyone by up to 5%”. Quite some lofty objective given that this is predicated on the take-up of its HD Traffic service reaching 10% of the driving community in Europe. Soak that up. 10% penetration in Europe. Add to this aspiration the cold hard fact that just 2.2% of TomTom’s 45million drivers connect to such a service and one wonders quite what they’re putting in the tea over in Amsterdam.

Leaving that aside, the technology and the ethics behind it are quite pleasing. In TomTom’s own words, this is how it works:

“TomTom HD Traffic uses a revolutionary new source of traffic information: the traffic flow of up to 80 million anonymous mobile phone users on the road. From this anonymous data, TomTom knows exactly where, in which direction and at what speed all these mobile phone users are traveling throughout the road network. This real-time data is combined with other existing quality traffic information sources, resulting in the most complete and reliable traffic information.” [Source: TomTom website]

The campaign activity to support this includes offering this data up to local broadcast networks across the continent for free. The cynic in me assumes this is to offset the simple truth that an in-car device capable of real-time traffic data and re-routing rather makes the hyper-local radio bulletin (ergo much of  the stations’ raison d’être) redundant.

We seem rather obsessed at the moment with geographic social networking. Whether it is initiatives such as this or more frivolous pursuits such as Places,FoursquareNike+History Pin and even the BBC’s Dimensions project, it seems a rather curious paradox that the more our lives are being tracked and traced in the digital world, the more we seek relevance from the physical environment around us: to seek out new routes, new places and new people in the vicinity. So, while the TomTom traffic data is helpful in the now, imagine  aggregating this data  over a longitudinal study to identify new places to commute from? Well, social graphs such as Harry Kao’s commuter map and Mapumental are doing just that sort of thing.

After all, isn’t it nice to find examples where crowd-sourced information is genuinely useful, even if CEO’s like TomTom’s Harold Goddijn can’t resist making somewhat grandiose claims.

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