Digital maps are essential to vehicle tracking, and a specialist may have the best solution
6th July 2005 - If you install a satellite-based tracking and automatic vehicle location (AVL) system in your vehicle fleet, you’ll probably assume it includes a standard set of on-screen digital maps for displaying your vehicle positions. You might not expect to have any involvement in deciding what mapping is actually used, or in upgrading or changing it later.
But if that’s your view you may not be getting the best product for your needs. According to MapMechanics, the UK company that prepares and supplies digital mapping for many leading systems such as Isotrak, SevenEye and TRACKER Network, it’s important to understand the underlying issues.
And this applies particularly if you’re tracking vehicles across national boundaries.
"Suppose you're a UK-based truck operator, but you take on some international work, and want to track your vehicles right through to eastern Europe or Asia," says MapMechanics’ David Cockrell . "If you ask your tracking system supplier for new continental maps, often they will simply refer you to a digital mapping supplier like MapMechanics. So it pays to know exactly what you want, and what is available."
He says MapMechanics is well geared up to dealing with such requirements. “We prepare and supply leading digital map datasets such as NAVTEQ, Ordnance Survey and AA, plus many worldwide map datasets. We have more experience of mapping than many of the AVL suppliers themselves. Often they look to us to come up with the right solution, and we have extensive experience in providing it. We work regularly with both suppliers and end users.”
Typical of the conundrums arising in pan-European vehicle tracking is what to do if it is necessary to use map datasets from different sources for adjacent countries. “Main roads may not exactly match up at borders, leaving your truck apparently in the middle of a field. We’ve evolved various strategies for �knitting’ maps together seamlessly.”
A more frequent problem is how to contend with foreign placenames. “Detailed mapping of European countries usually lists placenames in the local language, but if you’re trying to type the destination on a UK keyboard, you may not have access to all the characters and accents you need. MapMechanics can provide lookup tables that automatically translate the British version of the name into the local version.”
Another problem is that different countries use widely differing geographical or demographic units to describe locations. “In the UK we can geocode call points (position them on a map) quite accurately by their postcode, but in a country like Germany, using a similar approach could produce a result that is several kilometres out. The same problem arises if you’re trying to geofence an area to check when a vehicle enters or leaves it.”
The answer, says David Cockrell , is usually a system that works on the basis of placenames instead, and cross-references them to locations with an appropriate gazetteer. “You need to know the best solution in each case.” He adds: “In the Republic of Ireland, which has no postcodes at all, MapMechanics has developed its own system for approximating the position of individual addresses along given stretches of road.”
Many such solutions are developed with software such as GeoConcept, the advanced geographic information system from MapMechanics. Not only can GeoConcept process, cross-reference and integrate mapping and related data for suppliers and users; some AVL specialists such as TRACKER Network also use GeoConcept on a live basis to generate the maps used in their tracking systems.
Whether the primary customer is an AVL supplier or a vehicle operator, MapMechanics is uniquely equipped to provide an appropriate solution. As standard, the company can supply map data in a variety of industry-standard file formats such as MapInfo, SHAPE and GeoConcept, and has long experience of format conversion.
MapMechanics can also provide made-to-order mapping for specific areas. “Some AVL suppliers are specialising in regions such as Africa or the Pacific Rim,” says David Cockrell . “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for AVL mapping.”
When it comes to choosing a tracking system, David Cockrell points out that there are two broad types of product. Some suppliers offer desktop software hosted by the user, and in this case mapping of foreign countries may be sketchy unless it has been specifically requested at the outset. “You might find that the continental mapping just features main roads, and perhaps major conurbations.”
Web-based tracking (where the mapping is hosted remotely by the telematics provider) is more likely to offer wide-ranging European coverage as standard, so this may be a better solution for operators tracking vehicles across borders. But new road developments and changes in postcodes mean the mapping has to be updated constantly.
It helps if the mapping is available under appropriate licensing terms. MapMechanics offers a range of cost-effective options, including perpetual licensing and period licensing, which tends to be more popular because the initial outlay is much lower, and the service can include regular updates.
Sometimes, ironically, it’s not map display that operators want. “A haulier may just want a list of which truck delivered which load where and when,” David Cockrell says. In one recent project, a delivery operator wanted to be able to create textual lists of where each vehicle had been delivering. Drivers already recorded the postcode of each delivery point, so the requirement was to translate that information into easily-assimilated descriptions.
MapMechanics’ solution was to take NAVTEQ’s street-level mapping and create a single database of all UK roads, complete with route names, road names and counties. This was then cross-referenced with Ordnance Survey’s Code-Point data, which holds grid references for all postcodes. Result: lists showing that vehicle X delivered on road Y in county Z at such and such a time on a given day.
“Mapping knows no borders except those you impose yourself,” says David Cockrell . “The trick with cross-border tracking is to know what mapping you actually need, and ensure you or your supplier can provide it.