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Mapping firm’s drive is on display

In race to grab market share, Navteq goes extra mile

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 17, 2010

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Most people go to Sullivan’s for the food. But Robert Tuveson and Ian Giddings, geographic analysts for Navteq North America LLC, went to make sure the popular restaurant on Boston Harbor’s Castle Island was really there.

Their Ford SUV was outfitted on a recent day with a pair of oddly shaped antennas on top, designed to feed signals from a Global Positioning System satellite to a laptop computer. Tuveson sat behind the wheel, while Giddings took notes with an electronic pen and digital pad. He confirmed the restaurant’s location, and whether Navteq’s map still provided the best route, despite recent roadwork in the area.

“We wanted to make sure none of the new construction had affected the access to it,’’ Tuveson said.

It took much effort to check this single detail on the electronic map. But with digital technology companies ferociously competing for increasingly lucrative mapping business, accuracy has become the ultimate weapon. For Navteq to grab its share, Sullivan’s — and thousands of other places — must be exactly positioned.

No one keeps track of how much money is spent annually on digital mapping, said Joe Francica, editor in chief of Directions Magazine, an online trade publication that follows the digital mapping business. But there is plenty of evidence the market is massive.

Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group in Boston, said 144 million cellphones in the United States — and 1.3 billion worldwide — have GPS technology, enabling users to access digital maps. The same maps are used by the millions of GPS systems in cars and delivery vehicles.

With so many potential customers, mapping companies have been maneuvering to stand out from the competition.

Navteq, once an independent firm in Chicago, was bought by the Finnish cellphone giant Nokia in 2007 for $8.1 billion. Soon after, TomTom, the Dutch maker of GPS navigation devices for consumers (with US headquarters in Concord) bought Navteq’s biggest rival, Tele Atlas, for $3.7 billion.

Then, last October, Google Inc. stopped buying maps of North America from Tele Atlas for its Google Maps service. Google said it would rely on its own fleet of mapping vehicles. The Internet search giant also said it would provide a free navigation service on cellphones running its Android operating system, a direct assault on Tele Atlas’s parent company, TomTom.

Despite an initial stock-price hit, TomTom so far is holding its own. In late July, it reported a 2 percent decline in quarterly revenue, but a 69 percent gain in profit. “Demand has remained quite strong,’’ said Tom Murray, senior vice president of market development at TomTom in Concord.

Google still uses TomTom’s Tele Atlas maps outside of North America. The maps are also purchased by competing GPS makers such as Navigon AG and Garmin Ltd., and by 911 emergency response systems across the country. Automaker BMW uses Tele Atlas maps to tell a car’s computer when the vehicle is approaching a curve. The computer then commands the motorized headlights to shift slightly to one side, to provide better illumination. “We are wholly focused on trying to set the standard for automotive navigation,’’ Murray said.

But that’s not enough for John Hanke, vice president of product management for Google Maps. “Mapping is undergoing a really fundamental change,’’ Hanke said. “It doesn’t end with where you park your car.’’ Google is adding more data for pedestrians, creating maps of hiking trails and university campuses. “We wanted to fill in these sort of human-scale map details,’’ he said.

Navteq is also boosting its map offerings for pedestrians. Instead of driving their GPS truck around town, Tuveson and Giddings are sometimes given hand-held mapping units and assigned to walk the footpaths of public parks. Cindy Paulauskas, vice president of product management, said the company also plans to offer indoor maps of hard-to navigate places like malls.

But automotive mapping remains the priority. Tuveson and Giddings work as a team. On a recent day, Tuveson focused on driving, while Giddings worked the computer. Giddings’s job is to add data points, up to 80 pieces of vital information about whatever roadway they are traveling. How many lanes? What’s the speed limit? Are there stop signs? Traffic lights? Are the street names spelled correctly?

Huge amounts of such data are collected from government agencies, but people are always sent out to verify it. Navteq employees redrive every street in the nation’s major cities about once every two years. They spend about 30 percent of their time driving, and the rest hunched over computers integrating data with government reports, aerial and satellite images, and e-mailed suggestions from map users.

The Navteq truck has a digital camera pointing through the windshield, constantly shooting photos. Other vehicles use an array of six cameras that can produce a 360-degree view, like that seen on the Google Street View service. But Navteq doesn’t publish its photos; they’re used solely to improve maps.

Both companies also operate vans equipped with LIDAR (light detection and ranging) gear, a radar-like technology that captures the shapes of objects. LIDAR scans and photographs will someday let GPS screens show accurate three-dimensional images.

Commercial mapping companies face a challenge from amateur geographers who map whole countries.

Openstreetmap, a movement founded in Britain, relies on volunteers with GPS devices who track their movements as they walk or drive. Openstreetmap has built highly accurate maps of much of the world. Mapquest, AOL Inc.’s online map site, is investing $1 million to help Openstreetmap upgrade its US maps. It’s not charity; Openstreetmap lets anybody use its maps for free; backing the movement could eventually save Mapquest millions in map licensing fees.

But Navteq and Tele Atlas sell specialized maps to dozens of corporations and government agencies that demand far more detail than is likely from Openstreetmap. Those maps will always need updating. So Tuveson and Giddings, or someone like them, will be paying drive-by visits to Sullivan’s, and millions of other places, for years to come.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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