Avoid the Jam With Real-Time Traffic Reports

Save Time and Stress Using Nav Systems or Handhelds


  • Garmin StreetPilot7500

    Garmin StreetPilot7500

    XM's NavTraffic is offered by several manufacturers, including Garmin, whose StreetPilot7500, pictured here, shows traffic conditions during a storm. | March 18, 2010

3 Photos

"Merge onto Interstate 405 North," says the automated voice from your car speakers. Looking at the navigation screen in your car's center stack, you see your estimated travel time is 45 minutes. But as you merge onto the freeway, a line of taillights that seems miles long stares back at you. As traffic slinks along, your nav screen still reads 45 minutes. You roll your eyes, wondering why you spent $2,000 for a machine that lies to you half the time.

People who have first-generation navigation systems, made in the last seven or so years, are all too familiar with this problem. But today, automakers, navigation system suppliers and cell phone providers offer navigation capabilities with real-time traffic reporting that can keep you out of a mess and moving on with your life. Some even automatically re-route you around heavy traffic and accidents. The question becomes: Which one do you choose? The answer depends on your specific vehicle model, how much you want to spend and how you want to get your traffic information.

Integrated and Portable Navigation Units

Integrated navigation systems are built right into the car and blend into the car's interior seamlessly. This, however, can be an expensive proposition — these integrated units typically run as high as $2,000 in new cars.

Portable nav units from brands like Garmin, Magellan and TomTom are a more affordable option; prices range from about $200 to more than $1,200. That's a significant savings when compared to the price of an integrated unit. Plus, portable units can be transferred from car to car, a real bonus for multicar families or those who frequently rent cars when traveling. Be sure to check out our review of 10 portable nav systems to find the right unit for you.

Three companies offer real-time traffic reporting (note that this feature is available on both factory-installed and portable nav systems): XM Satellite Radio, Sirius Satellite Radio and Total Traffic Network (TTN). XM and Sirius are both powered by NAVTEQ, the company (purchased by Nokia in 2007) is known for building the digital maps utilized by navigation systems. Total Traffic Network is a broadcast radio service owned by Clear Channel Broadcasting.

As you'd suspect, XM and Sirius offer similar real-time traffic services for GPS navigation systems via satellite, and they both cover 80 markets with the promise of continuing expansion. Their features and information are similar, as is their pricing; XM Nav Traffic adds $4 a month to a basic XM subscription of $12.95 (or it's $9.94 a month for XM Nav Traffic only), while Siruis Traffic cost $3.99 a month on top of a regular Sirius monthly sub of $12.95.The two former competitors have now merged into one entity, Sirius XM Radio, but no changes to either XM Nav Traffic and Sirius Traffic have been announced.

Most cars that come with satellite radio installed as standard equipment do not have the capability of receiving XM NavTraffic or Sirius Traffic, and this shouldn't be confused with the audible-only reports offered by XM and Sirius (more on this in a bit). Your first of all must have a GPS navigation system built into the car that is capable of receiving the service, or you can add an aftermarket navigation system that's compatible with one of the two services. Depending on the aftermarket nav system you choose, you may have to spend between $59 and $300 for either an add-on receiver or a full satellite radio receiver that has the capability of getting either one of these services.

Various Services Compete

Each XM and Sirius customer gets numerous traffic channels as part of his or her subscription; however, this information is delivered via audible reports just like you'd find on your local broadcast news station. The difference is that satellite stations are specific — all traffic all the time — whereas your local news station will offer brief traffic reports only every few minutes, sponsored by advertisers. On the other hand, those local news stations offer their information at no cost to you and often have an intimate knowledge of the local area. This means they can often suggest alternative routes or offer more inside information in general. That's something a remote satellite provider just can't match.

Since it's owned by Clear Channel Broadcasting, Total Traffic Network (TTN) is able to provide its traffic reporting over broadcast radio signals, making it an alternative to satellite service. It takes spoken traffic reports and combines them with its own incident data — plus flow and predictive data from traffic information provider Inrix — to create a complete service that can be read by your a navigation system.

Because of broadcast radio's narrower bandwidth, updated information can take longer to reach vehicles than with satellite radio; however, high-definition (HD) radio (accessed with the purchase of a special receiver, which can run from around $170-$300) makes the difference virtually indistinguishable. Also, this broadcast radio service will only function as long as your car is within range of a Clear Channel-owned radio station. (Coverage maps are available on the TTN Web site).

On the upside, there aren't any additional equipment fees for the broadcast version of real-time traffic unless you opt for an HD tuner. And, unlike with XM Nav Traffic and Sirius Traffic, automakers such as BMW and Mini, and navigation system suppliers like Garmin and TomTom, offer trial TTN subscriptions at more reasonable yearly and lifetime rates. For a listing of automakers and available nav system suppliers, see the chart below.

Cell Phone and PDA Navigation

With cell phones and PDAs becoming ubiquitous tools in daily life, it was only a matter of time before navigation capabilities became available on these compact devices. Both types of device can retrieve map and traffic information and plot routes. All major cell phone service providers offer some form of navigation capabilities, or are at least able to provide a subscriber with real-time traffic information. They get their traffic data from the same sources as in-car nav systems and portable units. The cost for these services varies by plan, area and company, so check with your service provider. Bear in mind, though, that the display screens for this information will usually be much smaller than those offered by dedicated nav systems, and staring at a small screen while driving and trying to get directions is dangerous distraction.

MapQuest also works with several wireless carriers to feature MapQuest Navigator with real-time traffic on your GPS-enabled wireless phone.

There are some totally free real-time traffic options as well, though they may not have the turn-by-turn direction capability of paid services. Google Maps, for example, provides traffic info once a route is selected. Accessible through a cell phone Web browser, Google Maps provides navigation directions with real-time traffic information, free of charge. But your phone's Web capabilities must be enabled to do this; it could also entail additional costs, so check with your service provider if you're unsure.

Traffic.com, a NAVTEQ company, also offers free real-time traffic information via the Internet. Once you set up an account, you can select travel routes (such as your daily commute) and receive e-mails on your computer, or text messages on your cell phone or PDA with updated traffic information.

Edmunds.com Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin gets e-mail alerts at several intervals before her daily commute home. "Traffic.com tells me how many minutes my trip home will take on the freeway, as well as the average vehicle speed and whether there are any special events or accidents that would tie things up. It helps me decide between the freeway or the side roads every day. In Los Angeles, where traffic can change dramatically from minute to minute, it can be a big help." Still, Helperin recently leased a car with a built-in system to help her "navigate the wilds of Los Angeles" and to assist her in finding alternative routes on the fly.

What To Choose

Though every company claims to have a leg up on the others, all these services have different strengths and weaknesses. What it really comes down to is what will fit your needs and your bank account best. Consider these factors when deciding which option to choose:

  1. Do I want real-time traffic occasionally, or on a regular basis?
  2. Are the routes I travel covered sufficiently by the service provider?
  3. How do I want to receive my information (dedicated in-car nav or portable nav, cell phone or PDA, text message or e-mail)?
  4. What can I afford?

Heavy traffic has become an unwanted staple of the modern driving environment and a real headache on most commutes, but with real-time traffic reporting, you can figure out what's going on up ahead and get around it before you get stuck in a mess.

Real-Time Traffic Services
XM Radio
In-Car
Availability:
Acura, Buick Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ferrari, GMC, Hummer, Hyundai, Infiniti, Lexus, Nissan, Porsche, Saturn, Toyota
Portable Units: Alpine, Audiovox, Garmin, Kenwood, Pioneer
Coverage: Highways and arterial streets (metropolitan and suburban) in 80 US markets
Info: Accidents, disabled vehicles, scheduled road work, road closures, traffic flow/speed
Details: Problem location, lanes affected, predicted duration, traffic speed, estimated travel time
Price: $16.95/month with radio service $9.94/month for Nav Traffic only
Sirius
In-Car
Availability:
Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Jeep, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Volkswagen
Portable Units: Alpine, Eclipse, Panasonic
Coverage: Highways and arterial streets (metropolitan and suburban) in 80 US markets
Info: Accidents, disabled vehicles, scheduled road work, road closures, traffic flow/speed
Details: Problem location, lanes affected, predicted duration, traffic speed, estimated travel time
Price: $16.94/month with radio service $9.94/month for Nav traffic only
Total Traffic Network
In-Car
Availability:
BMW, Mini, Volvo
Portable Units: Cobra, Delphi, Garmin, Harman, Kenwood, Mio, Navigon, TomTom
Coverage: Highways and arterial streets (metropolitan and suburban) in 75 US markets, 48 with HD radio
Info: Accidents, disabled vehicles, scheduled road work, road closures, traffic flow/speed
Details: Problem location, lanes affected, predicted duration, traffic speed, estimated travel time
Price: Approx. $60 per year after trial subscription period Approx. $150 to $200 for lifetime subscription Free lifetime subscription with BMW, Mini, and Delphi
Google Maps
In-Car
Availability:
N/A
Portable Units: Although it comes preinstalled on the Google G1 and the Apple iPhone, most cell phones with internet access can use it.
Coverage: Full coverage for 30 US markets with partial coverage for 20 US markets
Info: Traffic flow
Details: Traffic speed
Price: Free online; use on a cell phone dependent upon price specified by the carrier for online access
Traffic.com (traffic info only)
In-Car
Availability:
N/A
Portable Units: Any cell phone model with internet access.
Coverage: Highways and arterial streets (metropolitan and suburban) in 51 US markets
Info: Accidents, disabled vehicles, scheduled road work, road closures, traffic flow/speed
Details: Problem location, lanes affected, predicted duration, traffic speed, estimated travel time
Price: Free online; use on a cell phone dependent upon price specified by the carrier for online access; text messages for traffic alerts subject to normal text messaging rates

Source: Edmunds.com

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