Fleet News

Ferrari trumped in a MINI Grand Prix

'If you have heard the tale of the tortoise and the hare, you will know the idea behind the saying 'more haste less speed'. In a bid to bring the legend bang up to date, this is the story of the hare and the prancing horse.

Gone is the fairy-tale setting of a wooded glade and carefree animals, to be replaced by hi-tech wizardry, exclusive cars and modern, congested roads. And instead of testing the claims of a big-headed hare to be faster than a tortoise, this modern day trial pits the power of a Ferrari 550 Maranello equipped with a trusty map against a MINI Cooper sporting the latest in satellite navigation and congestion avoidance technology.

Live traffic information provider Trafficmaster set up the test to put its Smartnav intelligent navigation system to the test. Smartnav combines satellite navigation with mobile telephone technology and information from Trafficmaster's established network of sensors and cameras – the cameras on little blue poles you see by the side of roads across Britain.

The system is difficult to spot at first glance because the only evidence it has been fitted to the car is a small dash-mounted button.

Pressing the button connects you with the Smartnav call centre and once you have given your destination, the route is downloaded to your car's 'black box', taking into account any congestion on the way.

You can also use the service as a mobile butler, ordering anything from flowers to hotel reservations. The system also proactively monitors congestion while you are driving, alerting the driver to jams on the route and offering the option of re-routing. But would a live test of the system in urban and rural Norfolk end with a fairytale ending for the system, or see the bumblebee of innovation splattered on the windscreen of reality?

The test began in Thetford, Norfolk, where I met the Trafficmaster team who would be taking part in the challenge.

To ensure fair play, I would drive the MINI, equipped with Smartnav, while Trafficmaster's Georgina Osborn, under the eagle eye of Fleet News' photographer Chris Lowndes, piloted the Ferrari.

We each had two envelopes, prepared in secret so there was no cheating. The first would take the cars to a staging post where the second envelope could be opened, revealing the final destination.

At the risk of betraying overconfidence, the Ferrari was given a head start and before you could say V12 engine, it had disappeared. This left me under the watchful gaze of Trafficmaster marketing and communications manager Michele Murphy as I got to grips with the Smartnav system.

Although there is a hi-tech system supporting the service, the single-button approach makes it very user-friendly.

Press it for two seconds and the system calls a Smartnav controller who simply asks where you want to go. The envelope revealed our first port of call was the suitably fairytale-sounding Mermaid pub in Elsing.

A few seconds later, the information was downloaded to our car, complete with a reassuring message from the operator, who said: 'There are no delays currently on your route and your arrival time should be 11am.'

A bit of churning of the steering wheel to escape from a tight parking space left us about 10 minutes behind the Ferrari, which would provide an excellent test for the system.

As we turned on to the main road out of the car park, the satellite navigation in the car pinged into life, providing turn-by-turn instructions that anyone who has used a guidance system before will be familiar with. Although there was no screen showing the route, the voice instructions were clear enough.

With no sign of the Ferrari, there was no way of knowing who was winning, but as we moved from dual carriageway to country roads, there were clear benefits of knowing exactly which turn to take.

After some twisting and turning roads, the satellite navigation system politely instructed us we were arriving at our destination. However, because the system was using a postcode to locate the pub, route guidance actually ended at the start of the village, although this proved to be a minor hiccup.

We parked and opened the second envelope for our next destination – The Saracen's Head in Wolterton – and pressed the Smartnav button to obtain the next set of directions. A polite recorded voice responded that 'The mobile phone network is not responding. Smartnav will try again.' Oops.

This is a chink in the armour of this system. It has to use the mobile phone network to connect to the operator and download instructions, so if you can't get a signal, you can't get the instructions.

The upside is that your route map is always up-to-date and accurate, rather than relying on a stand-alone CD-based system in a car.

While the system was retrying, I drove about a bit, looking for signs of urban life to get a signal. Oddly, a Vodafone mobile in the car was receiving a signal, which suggests it was a temporary glitch with the network, not its coverage or the Smartnav system. A bit of blind driving eventually restored the signal and we were on our way again, raising the question whether we were actually the hare and the Ferrari the tortoise.

Once the system had successfully downloaded the route, we made our way towards Wolterton without fuss. Again, the system informed us we had arrived before our destination because of the large area covered by the postcode, but this should be a problem unique to the countryside.

Parking the MINI outside the pub, there was no sign of the Ferrari, so we settled down to wait….and wait. Despite our car starting last and enjoying some unexpected detours, the Ferrari arrived in all its red-blooded glory a full 40 minutes behind us, if you include the head start.

As independent judge, our photographer admitted he was surprised as he was familiar with the area and felt they hadn't wasted any time and taken a direct route.

To cap the argument, Murphy produced a price list, showing the system costs from £499 including VAT. Installation is extra.

If you pay about £800, this covers everything, including four years of airtime use for calling your 'personal assistant', compared to about £1,700 for some conventional satnav systems.

So the fairytale ending remains intact and there is even a moral to the story. Knowledge is power on Britain's congested roads and can save you from spending hours behind the wheel – but keep a map in your boot, just in case.'

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