The Suna traffic-tracking service will cover most of Australia's key cities within weeks, but what else can we expect from this handy GPS enhancing technology? Lifehacker chatted with Adam Game, CEO of Suna's parent company Intelematics, to find out.
There's nothing more annoying than getting stuck in an avoidable traffic jam, and if you've got a Suna-enabled GPS, you can do your level best to get around it. The Suna service combines live data from traffic cameras and sensors with incident reports to identify potential problem areas, and broadcasts that information to compatible GPS systems using the FM radio network. There's no subscription cost for users, but Suna-equipped systems typically cost a bit more (since manufacturers pay a royalty to Intelematics for each product).
With the service due to go live in Perth, Adelaide and Canberra this month, it might seem that there's nothing left for the parent company to do except keep pushing out the updates and making sure manufacturers support the service. But as Adam Game explained, there's a bit more to it than that. Below is an edited transcript of the interview from last week.
LH: For the benefit of non-GPS-obsessed readers, run through the history of the SUNA technology in Australia. Adam Game: We launched Melbourne just before Christmas 2007 and a couple of brands tested the water with us over that first season. Then we seriously launched in three east coast cities in August/September 2008, and that really marked the beginning. Since then we've had those cities operating and then we added a new transmitter for the Gold Coast recently. We've always processed data for the Gold Coast region but the natural geography of the region is such that you can't always reliably receive FM stations from Brisbane consistently on the Gold Coast. We never expected to have reception but as it happens we often did, but not everywhere. And oddly enough the highest-selling store for our products happens to be one of the Gold Coast stores, so it's a useful market.
LH: What's next on the agenda in terms of coverage? Adam Game: We're currently working on the rollout for Adelaide, Perth and Canberra, and they're at various stages of testing. The constraint on that is that the maps which the GPS systems have loaded need to support traffic, which they don't yet in those cities, so that's what we've been waiting for. The current map upgrade that's about to wash through the market will add traffic codes for those cities so we'll be able to be received rather than broadcasting into a void. By the end of this month we'll have coverage of all the major cities; we'll have broadcasts up and running as the maps become available. We've been working on them in parallel.
Beyond that, one area that we've had less deep coverage than we'd like is Sydney, where we've had some stretches of freeway without 24/7 monitored coverage and so we're in the process of adding about 50 additional traffic cameras in the Sydney area so we can monitor those. In the Victorian freeways there tends to be good instrumentation and so we leverage that; in the other states, it's inconsistent and a lot of the older freeways never had speed detection systems and the like.
LH: How are the delivery platforms evolving? Will we see digital radio and mobile phone support?
Adam Game: RDS TMC continues to be the dominant technology that is being used to get traffic and real-time data to GPS systems. From a market point of view we're working with all the main brands. The automotive business runs on a three-to-five year model cycle to penetrate with any new kind of capability. We are advanced enough with those car makers that we expect to be on a high percentage of embedded navigation systems in that time frame.
Obviously, the other portable dynamic that's emerging at the moment is smart phones. From our point of view we are technology bearer neutral, so we have a feed available for GPRS or other styles of delivery. At the moment in Australia that's still at a very early stage and a little behind other countries. Both of those areas we expect to see content on services there, but certainly at the moment we see that as a secondary market as they're not yet really a mainstream source of turn-by-turn navigation.
We've done some tests with regard to digital radio. That offers in the very long term some interesting capabilities to support higher bandwidth. But looking globally, there are no consumer devices available that combine digital radio and traffic information. At the margins, digital radio is a very interesting technology, but whether consumers would perceive a cost benefit at the moment is questionable.
Much of the stuff you might expect to do in a digital radio environment can also be done in a connected device environment using 3G. It remains to be seen what the evolution is of higher-bandwidth content services.
LH: What extra information can be delivered over the system? Adam Game: One thing that we're working on is complementary content to traffic. When you talk about traffic, it's two main things at the moment: flow or congestion information and event information. We now have a capability where we're accessing car park availability and pricing from a number of the leading car park operators. We also have safety camera stuff and fuel pricing information.
LH: Can current GPS systems effectively deliver that information? Adam Game: That style of information is becoming available on GPS systems in other markets so it's possible for local devices to support it. Some of it can be done through the broadcast approach, like car park availability; others like fuel price at the moment can't, but it may in future via a backchannel like GPRS or Bluetooth. Certainly the portable GPS devices are clearly looking at smart phones as an area of potential competition and are exploring how they might counter and value-add.
There's also an evolution going on with RDS. The first systems required a dedicated antenna. That's evolved to a hidden antenna that's within the power cable, which is now translating to devices with a hidden antenna in the device that will operate even without a power cable. Our main objective with how we're working with GPS brands is to get them to put traffic information on as many devices as possible. Our aim is to be regarded as a required feature on all but the most entry-level of devices.
LH: How important is the cost-free nature of the subscription? Adam Game: We decided up front that a subscription approach wasn't going to be viable. From the consumer's point of view, the only visible cost is the extra charge attached to the hardware. That's where portable navigation devices have a strong advantage over smart phones. There is consumer resistance to subscribing to additional content.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman needs more than a GPS to compensate for his appalling sense of direction. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.