In-Car navigation systems are about to make the leap from being a back-seat driver navigation aid to an essential tool for the commuter.

Such systems, whose sales have been booming in the past few years, are poised to offer features far beyond their initial applications as electronic adjuncts to road atlases for those venturing on to unfamiliar roads and highways.

Functions such as real-time traffic flow information, digital logbooks and image-based navigation are among the tools manufacturers hope will turn in-car GPS systems into tools for everyday use, rather than assistants for those in unfamiliar places.

“For a while now, the market has been going crazy. It’s like the digital camera market was about five years back,” says Chris Kearney, Australian marketing manager for GPS specialist Tom-Tom.

“With the things that are in the process of being introduced here, it’s set to go up even more.”

GPS system makers such as Tom-Tom, Navman and Mio have enjoyed remarkable growth in Australia, which has been slow to embrace in-car GPS, which has been around in Europe for many years longer.

In the past few years, the market here has enjoyed more than 100 per cent year-on-year growth. This year alone, some 1.1 million in-car GPS systems are expected to be sold in Australia.

Already, in-car devices have developed beyond the basic map replacement gadgets they were when they first started appearing in Australia.

As well as becoming cheaper and having bigger screens (a common theme for all digital devices), they are becoming smarter and more reliable.

“The devices we deliver now are actually better navigation systems than when we first came to market,” Navman business development manager David King says.

“They’re not just for finding your way around strange areas any more. They give you information such as speed cameras or school zones – all quite topical features from the consumer point of view.”

Probably the biggest change afoot is the incorporation of real-time traffic flow information to help drivers avoid road congestion and plot the most time-efficient route for their daily commute.

SUNA Traffic Channel, a service provided by Melbourne-based Intelematics, a subsidiary of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, uses Real Time Data Signal Traffic Management Channel (RDS TMC) to provide automatically updated information on traffic conditions to in-car GPS systems via FM radio data packets or Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones.

Launched in Melbourne late last year, the service was last week extended to owners of compatible devices in Sydney and Brisbane, and is being prepared for release in Perth, Adelaide and Canberra in the next few months.

“This will extend navigation systems beyond going to places where you are not familiar with. They will become something you would use every day,” Intelematics chief executive Adam Game says.

“It is essentially making sure the navigation systems are aware of changing traffic conditions.

“The Pope’s visit next month to Sydney, for example, is providing us with a major challenge, but it’s also about things that change from day to day.”

The system takes a number of approaches to collecting real-time data.

Chief among them is data gathered by traffic light sensors provided under agreement with state traffic authorities.

“We take that as our raw data to gauge traffic flows and congestion,” Game says.

“It’s the defining feature, but we also augment and confirm that with road monitoring cameras, toll road operators and direct advice from traffic authorities.

“We aggregate all these sources of information to improve the comprehensiveness of the system.”

On the manufacturer’s side, new-generation devices are being lined up to take full advantage of the service.

Navman, for example, is touting the Bluetooth connectivity of its range of devices as an entry for new and existing users into the real-time traffic advice arena.

“Our GPS systems deliver data to your device with advice about matters such as slow traffic, accidents or blockages,” King says.

“Our device will then let you change your route or direction and travel by another route by pressing a single button. The idea is that the device gives you the option to re-route. “Going through Bluetooth via your own mobile phone, which is connected hands-free to the navigator, it is available through all devices using our software.”

Tom-Tom, for its part, will use the FM radio-packet version of the service, accessible via antennas fitted to new generations of the company’s products.

“Using the FM band means that if there is a problem or delay, on top of the best map you get the best route,” Tom-Tom’s Kearney says

Services such as the SUNA Traffic Channel are only the first generation, he says.

Already in the Netherlands (Tom-Tom’s home), a more capable system known as High Definition Traffic is in use.

“We will have High Definition Traffic here eventually. It is slowly being rolled out across Europe,” he says.

“High Definition Traffic uses mobile phones and cell switching data to automatically detect the way traffic is moving on all roads.

“Nearly everyone carries a mobile phone with them, and the system detects where cars are, where they’re going, and how fast they are moving.

“It then automatically updates everybody’s maps to reflect what is happening. It essentially puts a probe in every car.”

Real time traffic data is not the extra function in-car navigators are taking on.

Navman’s King says the marriage between GPS systems and Bluetooth connectivity means navigators can be an adjunct to mobile phones.

“Your device literally becomes like a larger screen on your mobile phone, so you can search your contacts, dial and so on.”

Navman also has a feature called Mileage Reporter – basically a digital logbook that automatically connects to a spreadsheet.

“That lets you seamlessly work out your mileages for expenses, mileage claims or tax purposes.”

One of the newest, and perhaps most innovative, areas of convergence in navigation systems is with digital photography.

Many systems have offered in-built cameras for some time, but some are going a step further and using images and geodata to aid navigation.

“It lets you navigate via a photograph rather than an address,” King says.

“Our S90 premium device for example, has a digital camera on board, which lets you capture and geocode a photograph.

“That means you could pull up, say, to a restaurant, and if you really liked it and wanted to go back again, you could snap its pic and get its geocode rather than have to enter a street address.”

Such applications have also spread to the web. “There is a website, Flickr, which has literally millions of geocoded pictures on it that you can look at and download,” King says.

“If you’re going to Melbourne and want to go to the MCG, Victoria Markets and on to Torquay, you don’t need to know the addresses. You can just download the pictures and the system will set it all up for you via the geocodes.

“You can even plot them to Google Earth to get a full map done.”

Tom-Tom’s Kearney is less convinced about the advantages of image-based navigation. “We do not do geocoding at the moment. People navigate more by maps than by pictures. We are focusing on getting navigation right, rather than have nice pictures on the screen.”

Of more use, he says, is enabling users to update their own maps to reflect their personal experiences and preferences.

“We have Mapshare, so people can update maps when they’ve seen that the provided maps aren’t up to date,” Kearney says. “At the moment we use Sensis maps, which has a big update once a year, and maybe lesser ones throughout the year.

“Mapshare, however, is like Wikipedia for mapping. Changes such as road closures, changes to speed limits or new points of interest can be added by the user.

“Like Wikipedia, these are used to update the map database once they have been thoroughly verified and confirmed.”

Worldwide, Kearney says, 1.5 million changes were made via the mapshare service in the past year.

“Real changes and updates are happening to our maps on a day by day basis,” he says.