Mention TomTom and you’re likely to conjure up images of small rectangular black boxes sitting on your windscreen or dashboard, giving you directions to your destination. While that is not entirely incorrect, TomTom is more than just personal navigation devices.
To learn more about TomTom, we visited the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, just off the city’s waterfront, to meet their co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Peter-Frans Pauwels, and also other top executives and mapping experts.
And one of the key messages that Peter-Frans Pauwels was keen to impress upon us from the get-go was that the crown jewel of TomTom is its maps, not its devices. "It's about what we put into our devices that matters", Pauwels said. And not all maps, he stressed, are equal. "There is a lot that goes into TomTom’s maps to make it so unique."
TomTom, as he outlined, is all about getting its customers from A to B in cars. And to do that properly and in the most efficient way, accurate maps are but just the building blocks and more needs to be done. And this is where TomTom distinguishes itself from the competition. Hence, TomTom adopts what they called a “layered approach” to making maps, where on top of the latest and most up-to-date maps, TomTom adds its own innovations such as MapShare, IQ Routes and HD Traffic. These technologies are crucial, because they help highlight changes in maps and also find not just routes for the users, but the quickest possible routes. We’ll elaborate on these two technologies later, but first, it’s necessary to talk about the raw maps since they really are the foundation to any good navigation software.
Prior to TomTom’s acquisition of digital map maker Tele Atlas in 2008, the company had to purchase base maps from other makers. However, the acquisition of Tele Atlas has given TomTom what Pauwels fondly called the “mother database”. With the rich selection of base maps from Tele Atlas, TomTom now has the necessary foundation from which to build upon.
A map by itself is not navigable. It needs additional information such as street names, street directions, traffic rules, speed limits, addresses and landmarks for it to work. These are the details TomTom needs to add on to the base maps. And while you might think of it as nothing, TomTom assured us that it is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive. Apart from using local authoritative sources to verify the map, sometimes, TomTom requires to send its mapping experts into the field to check and verify the base map as well as add more details.
These mapping experts survey the area and makes sure that the base maps are accurate (eg. roads are where they are supposed to be) and vital information like street names and speed limits are correct. To have a better understanding of what it is they do, we spent an afternoon with the mapping experts as they surveyed a new suburban town to make updates to the existing base map.