You may not have heard of them, but that's the secret of SUNA's traffic services; since operations began less than 2 years ago, SUNA have been quietly working behind the scenes to provide motorists with traffic updates across the vast range of personal navigation devices in Australia.
This includes all the top GPS brands, including TomTom, Garmin, Navman and Mio. So if you've been receiving traffic updates on your smartphone or GPS - chances are, the data has come from a company called Intelematics Australia, who operates the SUNA traffic service.
Fittingly, it's Google maps and Google users who are set to take advantage of SUNA's latest game changer - live traffic updates visible online, accessible from anywhere with a web browser - and all for free.
That's a slight deviation from the typical SUNA setup, which requires a lifetime-use licence to be purchased in order to access the service, a cost often absorbed with the cost of many higher-end GPS devices. A seperate antenna may also be needed in most cases.
However, Intelematics CEO Adam Game isn't worried about giving away the company's biggest asset for free. There's no SUNA logo or company link to be found on the Google site - not that Mr Game is worried. He's quick to differentiate between the two products, referring to the Google Maps version as a "complimentary" service; one which can work side by side with SUNA's regular traffic updates and isn't intended to replace SUNA's main service.
|Live traffic data: visually shows the good and bad areas
The value in recieiving traffic updates on your GPS is evident: drivers using SUNA compatible GPS dervices are delivered more precise traffic data fields,those which can include the exact street location of accidents and the estimated delay times by route. In comparison, the Google traffic function offers more visual awareness to the user than actual navigation. "We hope that it ratchets up consumers awareness and indeed expectations in how useful traffic can be a in a traffic application," he said.
Likewise, the Google version isn't as detailed as SUNA's regular service and perhaps we need not expect it to be. "Google maps is not a navigation application", said Game. Moreover, the maps are a visual snapshot, based on four specific colour groups which represent the coded traffic flow, moving from slow bottlenecks to zippy traffic routes.
That might not sound like a perfect way of guaging traffic, but it does provide an extra planning tool for users. "It's not a substitute. It's fundamentally about planning your trip, rather than guiding you on...The congestion monitor view is colour coded roads by the level of traffic congestion. That's slightly different from the personal navigation device", Game said. For now, the traffic data is only avaliable across main roads and arterials, although that's something likely to improve with time.
Fortunately, the service is deceptively simple to use: go to Google Maps, choose your location (available in a select number of capital cities and regional areas for now) and click on the traffic button. Traffic information can then be viewed as 'live' snapshots or as historical data subsets collected over a period of 12-18 months, which gives aggregated traffic averages from any given time of day. "12 - 18 months is an ideal historic view of traffic conditions", said Game.
|Historical traffic data: life at 8am in traffic on monday mornings
SUNA updates their data every 3 - 5 minutes, so Game hopes Google will do the same, although he couldn't say exactly how often Google would refresh the traffic feed across their maps.
However, Game is confident of SUNA expanding the service to other locations, with the potential to outsource extra content for the Maps. "In the near future, we would expect to see the remaining cities also on Google, (forming) a comprehensive relationship"
When we road tested the service in 2008, we found the traffic updates very useful, but sometimes prone to error. However, in the lengthy time since our initial review, SUNA has increased their data reporting capacity and hopefully ironed out some of the early bugs we noticed. As traffic is a snapshot at any given time, it's hard to quantify it as an exact science without a dozen other dynamic factors coming into play and affecting the outcome.
For now, this new Google maps function is likely to be well recieved by web surfers keen to oogle (and google) traffic flows while surfing around the maps content. It isn't perfect, but that's not the point. As a proof of concept, in displaying dyanmic traffic data through a web browser - it works very well and shows great promise.
The announcement also makes Australia one of the few countries in the world to have a live traffic service available through Google - a fitting tribute to a country that developed Google maps from day one.