Electronic navigation systems are ever more popular among drivers. But the satellite maps they rely on have to be traced, and updated, by car — one street at a time.

Navigating by electronic box can be a lot of work.

Lukas Smilek and his colleague are cruising through the streets of Berlin in a camper, from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag. But they’re not interested in tourist attractions. As one of them drives, the other stares at a small monitor in front of him. Five video cameras mounted on the vehicle film everything they pass.

People stare at the bizarre camera-laden van as it moves from street to street. What’s being produced here may seem like the most boring travel video of all time — but it’s going to take over the world. At least, that’s the idea.

Smilek and his colleague work for the Dutch company Tele Atlas, which produces maps for navigation systems. The traffic lights and traffic lanes they’re filming will soon help thousands of drivers find their way, guided by a soothing voices that tells them to “turn right” or “continue straight ahead.”

Every ninth German car is already sold with a pre-installed navigation system. Now there’s a new development: Small portable navigation computers that can be attached to the windscreen by a rubber suction cup have started to replace pre-installed systems. Even mobile phones can be used to for simple navigation purposes. Feeding these new systems with digital maps has become a lucrative business.

Two companies dominate the field. All major system providers — such as Navman, Tomtom and Garmin — buy their maps either from Navteq, in Chicago, which leads the market with an annual revenue of €400 million ($516 million), and Tele Atlas in Holland. Subsidized by the German Bosch corporation, the Dutch company was in the red for years. These two large competitors spent about $600 million each on maps for western Europe alone, according to insider estimates.

Why is it so expensive? Because navigation software has heralded a new era for the art of cartography. Satellite images and conventional maps provide no more than a starting point for digital maps that are created from a wide range of special data. Navteq alone is paying some 600 so-called geo-researchers to travel the world’s cities and painstakingly record every traffic sign and exit lane.

The cheap new navigation systems may well lead to a decline in the price of digital maps. A market report written by Navteq sees this as a risk; Tele Atlas sees it as an opportunity.

The Dutch firm hopes to produce its digital maps more swiftly and cheaply, and to make them more realistic too — thanks to an entire army of videomobiles sent out to explore the world rigorously and methodically. Smilek and his colleague cover hundreds of kilometers every day, but they leave the evaluation of the data they collect to others. Every five days they mail a hard drive containing 250 gigabytes of video material. The hard drive is then examined, one image at a time, by workers in India.

The idea is to accelerate the process of producing the finished digital map. It’s a Sisyphean task. About 15 percent of the data goes out of date within a year. Right now, a new map version is produced every three months. “But we’re soon going to have daily updates,” says Yves Gryson, the head of a twelve-man team responsible for the evaluation of the visual data at Tele Atlas. “Then customers will be able to access the most up-to-date data by radio transmission.” Gryson’s team is currently working on ways to speed up the evaluation process. It’s developing software that will automatically extract the relevant data — including house numbers — from video images.

Need directions? Ask your mobile phone

The system’s ever-greater precision should also attract new customers who don’t have much use for printed or even digital maps. Tourists in foreign cities may grow used to finding their way to the next attraction by mobile phone.

Gryson believes the abstract maps will be replaced by realistic video simulations within a few years. Companies like Siemens VDO Automotive are already researching even more subtle ways of guiding drivers through town. One system involves a camera constantly filming the road in front of the car and then displaying navigation information on the screen. Instead of hearing a voice that says “turn left,” the driver would simply see the relevant traffic lane glow yellow.

The latest maps developed by Tele Atlas are moving in a similar direction, by making easily recognized landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate appear three-dimensionally on the screen.

Alexander Zipf, a professor of cartography in Mainz who is himself researching the potential of digitalized three-dimensional images, draws attention to the possible disadvantages of the new developments in digital cartography: “Conventional maps often offer a better overview,” he says. “The new digital realism could lead to users losing the ability of drawing up their own mental maps.” Then people might not notice, for example, when they’ve been led around in circles.

The cartographers themselves don’t worry about such problems. You’ll look in vain for a navigation system in their videomobile. On their forays into the streets of Europe, they rely on a trusty old paperback atlas.

SPIEGEL Magazine – By Hilmar Schmundt