It can be every traveller’s worst nightmare: you step off a long-haul flight exhausted and straight into a rented car in an unfamiliar city knowing that one wrong turn could lead you into a bad area of town.
Help is at hand in the US, at least, where car rental companies are using mobile phones to provide their customers with voice-based navigation systems akin to the in-car facilities that are increasingly available on high-end vehicles.
The move has been led by Avis, which began offering the Avis Assist service in September 2003 and can be rented in conjunction with any Avis vehicle at more than 60 locations for $9.95 a day.
Vanguard, which runs the National and Alamo chains, began rolling out a similar programme earlier this year. Services are also available to individual businesses and users.
These services use phones equipped with satellite-based global positioning technology (GPS) to determine the position of the user to within 20 metres.
They communicate, via the mobile network, with a dedicated server which sends back automatic voice and visual instructions to provide directions from one location to another, using distances, street names, route numbers and exit numbers. The Avis system also offers services such as real-time traffic information with re-routing capability.
Travellers who arrive at a US airport and want to rent a car, but are unfamiliar with their surroundings, can use the service to guide themselves to their desired location, such as a designated street address or hotel, or the nearest petrol station or ATM.
Mike Caron, vice-president of product development at Avis, says the company introduced the service in response to growing demand from corporate and leisure customers for location-based services.
He says the company chose a mobile-phone-based system because this allows it to provide a service in all its vehicles.
Since the system is server-based, Avis is able to update the map data, directory listings and point-of-interest (POI) information several times a year without touching the devices.
With onboard systems, each vehicle’s internal computer must be individually updated. Moreover, the Avis Assist service is not tied to the vehicle so the traveller can use it on foot if they wish.
Other rental companies are taking the specialised in-car equipment route to provide similar services. Hertz, for example, offers the NeverLost service which is based on equipment provided by Magellan, the consumer brand of Thales Navigation, one of the world’s leading developers and manufacturers of positioning, navigation, and guidance equipment. This service normally costs $9 a day.
Mike Short, vice-president of research and development at the O2 group, says that the launch of the Avis and Vanguard services illustrates the way in which mobile communications are increasingly being used to control large fleets of vehicles.
Originally this was primarily a form of driver assistance, starting with GPS-based services which individual drivers could use to determine their position. Then companies linked vehicles to mobile networks so the positioning information could be shared with central offices.
This in turn has been followed by the addition of voice services to send information to the driver.
A customer who wishes to use the service is provided with a Motorola/Nextel i88s mobile phone which is equipped with assisted-GPS technology and pre-loaded with a Java application which communicates with the Motorola server.
The customer can select destination details by calling an operator, entering the details on the handset or entering multiple destinations on a personal web page that the phone will access.
The customer does not need to enter their own location details, because the system will detect these automatically.