Copywriting – How TomTom Maps An Ever Changing World

October 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Media & Copywriting

As part of my work with TomTom, I was commissioned to write a feature looking at how the company builds and maintains its world maps. As always, my condition is complete neutrality so here is my take on a truly fascinating process… 

“We could recreate the entire road geometry of Central London every 19 days,” says Scott Daubney, TomTom’s senior project manager of content operations in the UK. The distance of Central London’s total road network? Over 1,700 kilometres.

HistoryDaubney is an interesting man. He has built maps his entire career and spent the last 15 years expanding and refining the base map upon which TomTom’s entire business is built. His first stat is to explain the scale TomTom’s mapping operations have reached and he will break down how these maps are made.

But Daubney has better ones: nearly 7 per cent of the UK’s 591,000 kilometres of road network alters every year. Each day on average 7,000 changes are made to TomTom’s UK map and 210,000 changes made globally. That’s 12 million changes a quarter. His message is clear: mapping the world’s roads is difficult, keeping them up to date is far harder.

For casual users of TomTom’s personal navigation devices (PNDs) this focus may come as something of a surprise. TomTom is most known for these little black sat nav boxes and having shipped over 60 million of them since 2004 they remain a huge part of its business… just not the biggest.

The shift actually occurred in 2008. TomTom bought Tele Atlas for 2.9 billion euros and now controlled the map its sat navs were based on. Not only did this put it in control of its own destiny, but with the right development it had a tool and services to licence around the world. Five years later with coverage in more than 200 countries, encompassing over 5 billion people and 35 million kilometres and with its consumer sat nav sales bolstered by over 100 major business customers, it is safe to say the company cracked it.

How TomTom maps are made

data sources

Daubney tells me the key to all TomTom mapping is layers. At the core is primary geography such as roads, railway lines and rivers along with their classifications including road names, types, speed limits and restrictions. The layer above this adds points of interest (POIs) like hospitals, car parks and petrol stations plus route data which powers services such as IQ Routes (more on this later). In the final layer TomTom overlays its ‘Live Services’. These include ongoing road works, traffic jams and the ever changing positions of speed cameras to name but a few.

Each layer is flexible and can be swapped in and out and edited independently to suit consumers and business users’ needs.

“We can build a map from scratch, we’ve done it” says Daubney, “but we won’t if there are regional partners out there which we can worth with.” TomTom now has 50,000 of these partners worldwide. They range from governments providing aerial photography and databases of addresses, to small companies and mobile surveyors with deep local knowledge.

TomTom van

While accurate maps can be plotted from such data, it is TomTom’s own MoMa (Mobile Mapping) vans which then step in to do the real heavy lifting. Each is equipped with a ‘Ladybug’ 360 degree camera, laser scanner, 3D gyroscope, odometer, laptop, TomTom PND and redundant hard drives to store everything.

The combination of these sensors is sensational. The cameras capture images every 8 metres on city roads and every 10 metres on motorways. Road signs and roadside features are automatically picked out by image recognition software to apply road characteristics. The laser scanner maps 3D images of the buildings and landscape either side of the road. On top of this the gyroscope plots the direction of travel and camber of road while the odometer precisely tracks distance. Both are also crucial in recording data whenever a GPS signal may not be available.

At the end of each day the hard drive is collected and its data sifted through by TomTom’s ‘Cartopia’ editing environment which sits atop of the main map.

It is all highly impressive, though none of it explains how TomTom could keep up with Daubney’s remarkable road change statistics. Let alone explain how the company can recreate London’s entire road geometry every 19 days…

How TomTom maps are kept up to date

Probe dataDaubney stresses that while creating a base map is important, only an up to date map is useful. It is here the most unlikely helpers step in: you and me.

Since 2006 TomTom PNDs have had the ability to anonymously supply drivers’ route data. This isn’t about tracking where a person is going, but learning how each section of the road is performing. TomTom refers to this as ‘probe data’ and probes deliver over five million traces of information per day across 195 countries. With so many TomTom PNDs in the marketplace and travelling millions of miles, in the UK alone it is that probe content which can remap London every 19 days.

Furthermore probe content turns the TomTom base map into a dynamic flow of data. For example, when probe content shows drivers driving off existing mapped roads or against the expected directional flow it immediately highlights an area where the road layout has changed and the map needs updating. Sudden increases or decreases of probe data along roads can also indicate a road type has changed – such as upgrading to a motorway.

TomTom also monitors average speeds on road sections, compiling data every 5 minutes in both directions. This enabled the company to build ‘IQ Routes’, a service which plans the fastest route by factoring in the departure time on any given day and at any specific time. A further benefit of IQ Routes is it recognises universal decelerating which warns of building traffic jams. TomTom consequently boasts a 99.9 per cent jam detection rate with its Real Time Traffic service.

Map updates

The benefits of this so-called ‘passive community’ are also joined by an active MapShare community. ‘MapShare’ is a system TomTom puts in place for users to actively report map errors via the ‘Reporter’ tool on their website, on their PND or even using a TomTom app on their smartphone while  they are driving along. Around the globe TomTom receives 250,000 MapShare reports every month which need investigating.

If this wasn’t enough TomTom employs its own practice of continual checks: decay rates. “We treat the base map as a living, breathing entity and so approximately 120 attributes have different decay rates,” explains Daubney. “For example post codes change at a different rate to street names, forests and rivers.” When a decay rate progresses beyond a critical point the attribute is checked, even if no active or passive community reports have flagged up issues. It means no element of the TomTom map can be left neglected.

Where TomTom mapping is headed

As you might guess, with so much passive and active data to process the validation process must be quick, but rigorous. Cartopia is the primary tool for editing the base map and while smart recognition software can strip roadside data and traffic signs from submitted photo and video footage, a dedicated centre of up to 1,000 employees is also required. They diligently work through all submitted data verifying each change with multiple sources including TomTom surveys and visits by approved third parties. Moderated changes are applied to the base map and key data – such as blocked roads – is pushed to users. On top of this MapShare patches which do not directly edit the base-map are sent to user’s devices every day at 6pm.

And yet this streamlined system is where TomTom expects to make the biggest leaps. MapShare alterations go out daily, but currently fundamental changes to the road geometry are issued in quarterly updates. Daubney says TomTom aims to bring these down to 48 hours or lessADAS

To achieve this TomTom will switch its core mapping to a more modular approach for both end users and business partners. The ‘Navigation Data Standard’ will be launched for the former group and it splits the base map into tiles which are automatically pushed to a customer as they are updated. NDS works seamlessly, even amending a route during travel as the changes are applied.

For business partners the existing ‘MultiNet’ core map will be upgraded to ‘MultiNet-R’ – a vector based approach which applies a fixed ID to each map vector and sends only updated vectors to partners which they have the option to incorporate. This may be less seamless than NDS, but it gives b2b customers – particularly key partners in the automotive industry – the control they require. With Audi, BMW, Ford, Maserati, Mercedes, Renault and Volkswagen among these partners their standards are exacting.

Aside from updates, map enhancements will also take a sizable leap thanks to impending advances to TomTom’s ‘Advanced Driver Assistance Systems’ (ADAS). These will offer more granular data based on road curvature, gradient and height and the consequences are significant. Precise curvature will enable PNDs to provide sharp curve warnings and overtaking assistance. Improvements to gradient gives drivers greater control over fuel economy and will better regulate cruise control thanks to more predictive powertrain management. Finally height brings improved eco-routing and more accurate control of electrical vehicle range – an increasingly vital market sector.

Enticingly all this only scratches the surface. TomTom’s 360 degree MoMa van imagery is sharp enough to capture the pattern on a pair of window blinds, the on-board 3D laser scanner can even pick up textures on the roadside buildings it passes and all road sections driven are stitched into a single ‘bird’s eye mosaic’ which can detail every road marking and pattern.

Only time will tell what journeys they will enable TomTom to take us on next…

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