You've never heard of the company Inrix, and neither had I until today, when I spoke with its CEO, Bryan Mistele, about the firm's role in providing traffic information for automotive navigation systems.
According to Mistele, Bill Gates and Paul Allen's first business was not Microsoft but rather a traffic-information company that they started in high school. Gates rekindled his interest in the study of traffic flow and funneled that into Inrix, which spun off from Microsoft eight years ago. The Seattle-based concern, Mistele says, is the leading provider of traffic information in the country and counts Map Quest, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Mini, Tom Tom, and all of the Clear Channel Communications radio stations among its clients. "Eight of the top ten portable map companies use our data," says Mistele, "and three of the top four automotive conglomerates use our data in their navigation products."
It's all well and good for your navigation system to tell you that there are roadblocks ahead, I told Mistele, but I wondered when, pray tell, navigation systems will automatically re-route you around such obstacles. Now THAT would be useful.
"You'll see this before the end of the year," promises Mistele, "in one of the top four OEM carmakers, which intends to install it in all of its products. It's a key area of focus for our company and part of our connected services platform."
But you don't have to wait for the as-yet-to-be-announced, sure-to-be-expensive new cars coming this fall to get the latest in traffic routing. Inrix's latest technology is already available in the aftermarket in the Dash Express portable navigation device that recently went on sale for a suggested retail price of $399 (Amazon has it for $299; there's also a monthly subscription fee). "The technology is two-way capable," explains Mistele. "It not only receives data from us, it transmits it back." What this amounts to is that, the more navigation systems are out there, the more of them that are reporting back traffic slow-downs; computers crunch these data and spew them back out to all the Inrix-supported nav units.
Inrix has other navigational tricks up its sleeve. Owners will be able to personalize the system debuting this fall so that it predicts where you're going based on your previous driving patterns. "If it's eight o'clock on Monday morning and you get in your car," boasts Mistele, "the system will figure that you are probably driving to work. It should know this and say, okay, it's going to take you a certain number of minutes to get to work today [based on traffic patterns, weather, and other factors]. And by the way, here are last night's scores from your favorite sports teams." Knowing that you're headed to the office, the system will immediately scan the available routes and offer up the best one for getting there.
"The challenge has always been that most devices have calculated a route based on traffic data," says Mistele. "We now not only take traffic into account, but our system is time intelligent." This means that, if you're driving from, say, San Francisco to San Diego, the system will know what traffic will be in San Jose, and Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles, and Orange County, and make adjustments to your advised drive route accordingly. "We also take into account [such factors as] weather forecasts, concerts and sporting events, and even variables like the legislative schedule in Washington, D.C., because that affects traffic flow around that city. This is something we just announced, but it will be in the OEM applications later this year," says Mistele.
Inrix's major competitor is Traffic.com, which supplies Acura, the first automaker to offer traffic updates on the fly. These companies don't do the mapping themselves, or the driver interfaces, which are up to the carmakers and their suppliers to perfect. Inrix is concerned with the behind-the-screen information that promises to make navigation systems much more useful and, as Mistele points out, potentially much worthier of purchase consideration: "It's hard for people to say, 'yeah, I'll spend a thousand dollars, or two thousand dollars,' for a navigation system that they'll use maybe only two or three times a month," he explains. But if they can use it every day, Inrix and the company's OEM clients hope, customers will be more willing to pony up for what remains one of the more expensive options you can choose on a modern car.