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Real-Time Traffic Goes Portable

8/19/2005 10:22:00 AM Eastern

Real-time traffic — the potential "home run" feature for navigation — is gaining support from suppliers and beginning to migrate into the more popular portable models.

While real-time traffic is offered in only a handful of in-car devices today, it is quickly infiltrating the lower-priced portables which represent 80 percent to 85 percent of the market, according to industry estimates.

Cobra announced the release this month of a navigation unit with real-time traffic built into a portable system. (See p. 6.) Garmin began shipping last month an optional real-time traffic receiver for two of its new portables (See TWICE, July 25, p.39). And Magellan (a Thales Navigation brand), said it will offer real-time traffic this spring.

Magellan said real-time traffic is growing rapidly in Europe with approximately 65 percent of in-dash navigation units offering the feature and about 15 percent to 20 percent of portable units expected to include it by the end of the year, according to Christian Bubenheim, consumer business unit VP and GM for Thales Navigation.

The United States could see similar penetration levels for real-time traffic in the future, noted Bubenheim. "I think it will take longer in the U.S. because the quality of the data is not as sophisticated or broadly available yet." He added that real-time traffic is free in Europe while it costs about $5 to $10 a month in the United States.

Bubenheim and others say the market for portable navigation in the United States is exploding. Thales estimates it will reach 450,000 to 500,000 units this year, effectively doubling last year’s sales.

The magic brew of real-time traffic and portability, plus preloaded maps, is expected to be a big sales draw. "It really is the beginning of what, in the home audio world, was called convergence. Everything is coming together in something the consumer can find really useful," said Paul Gosswiller, purchasing manager for Audio Express, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Although the market is in its infancy, there are already a variety of real-time traffic services. XM NavTraffic is used in most in-dash/fixed navigation systems, with the exception of Audiovox’s Clear Channel NAVTMC. Portable suppliers tend to favor Clear Channel traffic, which provides data for 48 top markets, compared to XM’s coverage of 22 (see chart). Sirius Satellite Radio is also planning to launch a traffic service this year, and Mobile Crossing is offering a proprietary service.

Cobra’s recent product coup is to offer a matchbox-sized real-time traffic receiver embedded in its new NAV ONE 4500 portable navigation system.

Also new in portables this month is a replacement for the industry’s top performing portable from Magellan. The company’s new RoadMate 760 has the added benefit of accepting a new real-time traffic module that Magellan plans to offer next spring.

The 760 is also notable in that it offers text-to-speech capability to announce street names. "Most navigation systems say ‘Turn right in 200 meters.’ And then the driver must look at the screen to see the name of the street. This unit spells out the name of the street" to reduce driver distraction, said Bubenheim. The 760 has a 20GB hard drive with built-in nationwide street-level maps. It also offers "the next best thing to real-time traffic," said Bubenheim. The 760 detects when a driver slows down for more than a minute or two and then it asks driver, ‘It looks like you are in a traffic jam, would you like to reroute?’ said Bubenheim. The 760 offers 7 million points of interest and carries a suggested retail price is $1,099.

Finally, Mobile Crossing, Sunnyvale, Calif., is offering a PDA/handheld, with car kit, that can combine with a Bluetooth-enabled cellular phone to offer real-time traffic data in 20 markets, as well as weather updates. Mobile Crossing performs its own aggregation of traffic data in a service it calls TrafficWatch and partners with The Weather Underground, Ann Arbor, Mich., for weather updates.

The WayPoint 200 handheld/PDA runs on a Pocket PC platform with a 400MHz processor. It has 40MB RAM and 128MB ROM. It offers spoken and visual turn-by-turn directions with icon overlays for traffic incident reports and speed data. The first year of traffic service is free with annual fees thereafter of $42 for traffic and $60 for weather plus traffic.

The WayPoint 200 has regional built-in map coverage and accepts maps on SD cards for the remainder of the United States. It comes with a USB cable, vehicle mounts, and home charger and cradle. Other features include full-color touch-screen display, Compact Flash and SD slots, an IrDA Port and a USB SyncPort at $749 for preloaded regional maps and $799 with national maps.

Just one more note: It looks like Garmin is aligning itself with XM as well Clear Channel, although it is unclear whether Garmin will add XM NavTraffic in the future. It recently demonstrated an aviation unit with XM music capability and a map overlay of XM weather data — model GPSMAP 396C at $2,695. But Garmin would neither confirm nor deny that it will offer XM NavTraffic in the future.