Rolling down your car window and asking a complete stranger for directions is one way of reaching your destination. But if you don't want to leave your destiny to random people, map and navigation products may be just what the doctor ordered. They save time, fuel and definitely a lot of headache.

The directions are pretty easy to follow, even for the ‘technologically-challenged’. Voice-based navigation, now available in a choice of languages, will guide you to the right street, or even the exact spot where you want to reach. It will give you turn-by-turn guidance and even find you a new, alternative route if you stray off your path.

But service providers are now moving beyond just directions. Real-time traffic updates also comes as a handy tool. When desperate to save time, like driving to a meeting, it can tell you the shortest route by avoiding jam-packed roads. Drivers in metros like Delhi and Mumbai will recognise this as a heaven-sent gift.

“Traffic has been a customer pain point for long. By offering Smartdrive (app) to its customers, Airtel is bringing a product of high utility value to its customers,” an Airtel spokesperson said. Though Vodafone and Tata Teleservices are also rumoured to be working on similar services, Airtel has been the first among telecom operators to offer navigation services.

Traffic data is usually displayed in a simple colour scheme, red for significant congestion, yellow for minor slow-downs, and green for free-flowing traffic.

Says Darren Baker, Product Manager for Google Maps, “We’re confident that these features (navigation and traffic data) will help Indian users find their way around town with greater ease and convenience than ever before.”

There are other value-added features on offer as well, such as ‘Points of Interest’. Under this, many navigation products identify useful nearby services – such as hospitals, hotels, tourism hotspots or even the best restaurants in the vicinity.

Rapid Growth

The latent demand for map/navigation services in India has seen many new launches in recent times. Last month, Google Maps unveiled the voice navigation and traffic feature for India, followed closely by the Airtel SmartDrive app launch.

Device makers believe that strong demand will come from the Tier-2 cities and other smaller towns, where people do not possess smartphones and hence cannot download maps.

“We have already seen this moment in the West. Till recently, there were hardly any maps available for India, but now there is a lot of potential here. Every year the market is doubling,” says Ali Rizvi, National Sales & Marketing Manager at Garmin India. The US-based company, which recently started an Indian subsidiary, is now considering setting up a local assembly unit to make its devices more affordable.

Another major contender is expected to be Apple’s new Map service. Launched with the iPhone 5 and soon to be available in India, it offers very high levels of detail and 3D views of major locations.

Not Expensive

Making life simpler may not necessarily mean a lighter wallet either. Though there is a cost for data, Google Maps can be downloaded for free on Blackberry, Apple or Android-based smartphones, while Nokia’s Drive comes pre-loaded on its high-end devices.

Other apps charge a small amount. Though search and map viewing is free on Airtel’s SmartDrive, one has to pay for navigation (Rs 10/day, or Rs 99/month) and live traffic information (Rs 3/day, or Rs 49/month). Third-party provider, Navigon’s app for Android and Apple iOS users, is priced starting Rs 2,000 (and Rs 3,780 for Apple), while Apple iPhone users can opt for Sygic’s maps by paying Rs 2,700.

However, if one doesn’t mind spending a bit more for convenience, there are companies like MapmyIndia, Garmin and TomTom, that specialise in purpose-built display devices that come loaded with all the regular features. These start from about Rs 5,000- 6,000, though a high-end unit can cost over Rs 20,000.

Although navigation apps are a cheaper option, they tend to be a drain on the phone battery. Plus, with the map service on, one cannot use the phone for its other primary functions like calling.

Rizvi says that Garmin may also launch a mobile app version soon. While it already has such an app available in Indonesia and Malaysia, rival MapmyIndia also offers a downloadable app version of its maps.

“Unlike mobile-based apps, our devices offer a bigger screen and are heat-resistant as car windshields can get very hot in summers. They are also more rugged, so even if they fall off their holder, they do not get damaged easily,” Rizvi adds.

Localised Services

Navigation devices are also ideal for those who frequently travel between cities or towns. So, recognising the diverse nature of India, providers like Garmin offer seven local languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Punjabi, and will soon add five more.

Globally, navigation services are much more advanced. In Tokyo, for instance, the map services also offer details on local transportation, bus and train timings and even whether the road is uphill or downhill for cyclists. In The US, Google has introduced Street View where you can see how a particular street looks in real. Google tried to do this in Bangalore too but were stopped by local Police due to security reasons.

The big challenge for offering map and navigation service is data collection which has to be constantly updated as the city streets change and new buildings come up. While Airtel SmartDrive today covers Delhi & NCR, Mumbai and Bangalore, it will be covering Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune by December. Google, which offers navigation across the country, has live traffic information available only for major roads in the prominent cities of Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Pune and Hyderabad.

Meanwhile, Navteq, a mapping firm and a Nokia Group company, has increased its spread exponentially. From 16 cities three years back, today it covers about 4,000 towns and metros in the country. Navteq provides the raw maps for Nokia’s Drive, Garmin devices and the Airtel navigation app.

How it works

Mapping services generally use two types of technologies. The paid versions like ones offered by Garmin and MapmyIndia use satellite based Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. This uses the GPS capabilities of the device to communicate with a satellite and pin-point your exact location. Since GPS is a satellite based navigation system, it is very accurate and can provide location and time information in all weather, anywhere on the Earth. You might face minor problems indoors because GPS works best in an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites.

Then there are free versions like the ones offered on smartphones that use tower triangulation method whereby the location of the user is determined using the cell towers. While this is useful for getting a good idea of the destination, it may not be very accurate at times, specially while travelling in non-urban areas, where the cell towers are not close enough to pin point your exact location. The other downside is that you need Internet connectivity so if you pass through a spot where there's no coverage, the map could just freeze. But hey it’s free so one can’t complain.