Descartes UK

Can Google Maps really provide professional route planning?

“With Google overhauling its Maps software division, it’s a good opportunity for operators to review if their current mapping software in their transport management and trip planning software is fit for purpose”, says James De Roo, UK Managing Director of PTV Group.

In June, Google introduced changes to its Maps API platform, popular with software developers for adding location information to their products, including vehicle tracking and routing and scheduling software.

Currently, Google offer 18 separate Google Maps products. In future, these will be grouped into three main sectors: Maps, Routes and Place. Software that uses existing code will continue to work, but in future all Google Maps developers needing dynamic maps will need an API (Application Program Interface) key and will be charged higher rates for use – the current arrangement of 25,000 free page uploads a day is being cut to 25,000 per month. To obtain an API key, developers using Google Maps must create a billing account and supply credit card information.

What will be the impact of the changes?

While exact details are still to be confirmed, the impact on dynamic vehicle tracking and routing software is likely to rise in the coming monthly costs as developers will seek to pass on those rises in costs. It’s true that existing code for maps will continue to work, but only until a map update is required.

Are all dynamic digital maps the same?

“No. Digital maps may all look very similar but, beneath the surface, there are many differences”, explains De Roo. “PTV does not rely on Google Maps for routing calculations, on-screen displays of vehicle location or dynamic updates of routes. The xServer software suite includes a range of modules and tools to help with accurate journey planning, real-time monitoring of delivery schedules, routing and complex optimisation requirements. Understanding the requirements of logistics operators is important in order to deliver appropriate digital maps”, says De Roo. “PTV is focused on logistics; we understand the importance of truck-specific data such as weight, height and speed restrictions, when it comes to journey planning. We can add satellite images to address points, so users can see exactly where the delivery point is at a distribution centre, for example, or data on low emission zones, accident blackspots and road sections subject to high winds.”

PTV’s software can also calculate emissions for each journey, factoring in the actual distance of road covered, the vehicle and/or emissions class, the load and other significant influencing factors such as road gradients.

How does dynamic mapping work?

The first step in plotting a vehicle’s route on a map is to translate delivery addresses and postcodes into a precise latitude and longitude point – called geocoding. Conversely, for real-time tracking, the vehicle location data captured by the on-board GPS black box needs a latitude and longitude fix. That data then has to be translated into a meaningful road or street name, to enable user understanding of the location – which is called reverse geo-coding.

“A huge number of rapid calculations are required to deliver what appears to be a seamless process”, points out De Roo. “The xLocate server manages tens of thousands of events and calculations within minutes. It’s the only way we can deliver the granularity logistics operators need to be proactive in managing routes and informing customers of any changes to scheduled delivery times. If the servers are slow at geocoding, there will be unacceptable time lags between an operator requesting a route or position update and the map displaying it.”

Each delivery addresses on a route – whether it is 10 or 60 - and each individual route needs geocoding.

Monitoring planned against actual routes in real-time requires frequent position updates – which all require the same latitude-longitude conversions for each update, so they can be plotted on the ever-present digital map.

“Operators should not rely solely on postcodes to identify a delivery address”, warns De Roo. “Several houses may share the same postcode, for example, and the postcode for a distribution centre may not identify the actual goods inwards gate.”

Location update timings can be flexible – ranging from weekly, daily to every minute or second, depending on the operation. For valuable or vulnerable cargo, or for vehicle incident video recording, for example, updates may need to be as frequently as every 30 seconds. Conversely, for confirming the location of a trailer or construction plant, a daily update might be sufficient.

What other features are important?

Not all digital maps include time and distance calculations, but PTV considers these are essential for realistic ETAs, both at the planning stage and for real-time journey monitoring with regular updating to ensure ETAs remain realistic.

Nor does all mapping software incorporate in-depth data on the UK road network data – essential for reporting and identifying speeding incidents. “Simply assuming the national speed limit applies to all sections of an A-road, for example, won’t enable operators to identify a speeding event that occurs on part of the road where the speed limit is lower than the maximum permitted - from 60 to 40mph, for example – called contextual speeding.

The PTV map engine includes data such as one-way streets and the speed limits that apply to each segment of that street or road. It’s the only way the software can compare the actual speed of the vehicle at that location with the speed limit applying on that particular stretch of road.