The jam busters

If your new motor has in-car telematics you won't be able to blame the traffic when you next roll in late for work, writes Ben...

If your new motor has in-car telematics you won't be able to blame the traffic when you next roll in late for work, writes Ben Whitworth

A government survey has found that the UK has the worst traffic congestion in Europe. With the rail network staggering from one crisis to the next and the number of vehicles set to grow by a third over the next 20 years - that's another nine million cars added to the present 28.8 million - the situation is unlikely to improve.

Fortunately, car makers Toyota, Ford and Alfa Romeo have some technology that could help you avoid the jams - dynamic in-car telematics.

The concept is simple: global positioning satellite (GPS) technology is linked to real-time traffic avoidance information to create a smart satellite navigation system.

Toyota rather cleverly calls its system ETA (Electronic Traffic Avoidance). The system is now fitted as standard on all Avensis models and is offered as a £1,250 option on the new Corolla.

Other new Toyotas, including the Previa and Rav4, will benefit from the system by the end of the year, and older Toyotas with satellite navigation will be able to have the system retrospectively fitted. Once installed there are no other charges.

Coded information from two traffic-monitoring services, Itis and Traffic Link, is broadcast continuously to the cars using Classic FM's Radio Data System (RDS) signal. Even when the car is not in use, its integrated RDS decoder still downloads the data gleaned from the Highways Agency, the police and a multitude of traffic-monitoring cameras.

Before embarking on a journey, the Avensis driver has two options for congestion avoidance. If the satellite navigation and ETA realises that part of the programmed route will take the car through a congested area, it will suggest an alternative route that bypasses the obstruction.

If the driver is not using the satellite navigation and ETA is informed of a local traffic jam that could affect the car on its current course, it will again offer the driver a jam-avoiding diversion.

The information, which covers all motorways, trunk roads and major A roads, is also prioritised according to local or national significance, so drivers in Bognor Regis are not told of jams in Edinburgh, for example.

Although Toyota has yet to introduce a pan-European ETA system, the UK infrastructure uses a standardised European format.

Ford has approached the congestion problem from a different angle. Its £600 Ford Telematics system is now available on high-spec Mondeo and Focus models. It combines mobile phone and global positioning technologies to provide drivers with a kind of in-car assistant which is able to provide more than traffic information.

Unlike Toyota's ETA, with its uni-directional flow of communication, Ford Telematics is linked to the Vodafone network. This allows the driver to converse with an operator using a hands-free mobile phone.

The car comes with its own hands-free phone, which is integrated into the dashboard's centre console along with the audio system. To allow the driver to keep their hands on the wheel as much as possible, the Ford layout uses only four one-touch buttons to perform all functions.

Again, there are two ways of accessing traffic information. The driver can dial up Vodafone's recorded traffic data, which is provided by Trafficmaster. As with a standard mobile phone, Vodafone locates the car using its GPS sensor and provides the driver with traffic data for their area through the car's stereo system.

Alternatively, the driver can contact an operator for specific information, not just on traffic conditions and directions but on booking a hotel, recommending a restaurant or locating the nearest petrol station.

Ford Telematics also includes a voice recognition system for hands-free dialling which has a 100-name memory, and an emergency function that alerts the emergency services if the SOS button is activated or if any of the car's four airbags are deployed.

The downside of the Ford programme is that it means you are running a second mobile phone. And when you get charged 75p a minute for chatting to an operator and 45p a minute for listening to automated traffic information, on top of your Vodafone monthly contract and call charges for using the in-car phone, the bills could soon get out of hand.

Alfa Romeo's Connect system - an option on the 156 and 147 models, with prices starting from £740 - is pretty much identical to Ford Telematics, except that its operator service is provided by Italian communications company Targa Services and its Milan service centre deals with Alfa Connect throughout Europe.

Rather than calling Italy every time the driver activates Connect, the system sends a short text message to Targa Services and one of its operators then calls the Alfa driver. With text messages costing between 10p and 15p, depending on which local mobile phone server is used, Connect is far cheaper than the Ford programme, particularly as Alfa is offering a free 12-month trial to drivers and a further one year's subscription will cost about £180.

Like any new technology, costs are high, and all three manufacturers are anticipating a slow initial take-up - Ford expects less than 10% of this year's Mondeo and Focus buyers to opt for the Telematics programme.

All of them are banking on a massive explosion in demand as operational and development costs plummet and more manufacturers jump on the bandwagon. However, with almost 10 million more cars forecast to join our roads during the next 20 years, it can only be a matter of time before all the drivers avoiding a traffic jam on one road create their own jam on the diversionary route.

How does in-car telematics work?
Dynamic telematics links two existing technologies: in-car satellite navigation and real-time traffic information.

Previously, drivers' satellite navigation systems could tell them how to get to an unknown destination, but they had to have their radios tuned to the local station to find out about traffic conditions. With dynamic telematics, the satellite navigation system downloads traffic data directly from the radio and offers you an alternative route that avoids any congestion blackspots.

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