The trouble with sat nav…

You might be surprised to know that one of the most common enquires that comes into our customer service team is around the use of sat navs. Yes, fielding questions about the super useful but oft blamed navigational aid takes up a sizable amount of our time.

Questions range from people wondering whether an in-car sat nav makes a decent walking guide (the answer is no!) to asking for helping setting one up (best to contact the manufacturer) and questioning why a particular route has been chosen (again, best to talk to the manufacturer).

Sat navs have changed how many of us plan journeys.

But of course, we are involved in the sat nav industry, supplying some of the underlying data, and so it’s worth explaining our role in a little more detail.

Through our work mapping Great Britain, we collect and maintain a huge amount of information on the nation’s roads. Not just their location and size but also any designated road restrictions – things like One Way Streets, bridges with height or weight limits and turning restrictions.

This data is available to use by private mapping companies who can take it and turn it into the mapping you and I might see on our dashboard sat nav. It’s these companies that add the information that makes routing possible, giving a route a weighting of importance, whilst taking into account user feedback, data from traffic surveys and the size of the road, for example. This process takes time, and it can actually be a couple of years before changes in our data make it into a sat nav in the shops.

Speaking of which, it’s also important that all sat nav owners periodically check if there are any mapping updates available from the manufacturer. You wouldn’t read last year’s newspapers to catch up on current affairs, so don’t relying on out-of-date mapping to help you get around. Any updates will be available from the sat nav company’s website so remember to check now and again, particularly ahead of a long or unusual journey.

So essentially, we only supply the mapping and anything to do with routing ‘aint us guv’. Questions about routing, how up-to-date the mapping is, or how to set up an individual sat nav are all best asked to the company that made it.

Sat navs for heavy goods vehicles

An area where we are often asked to comment (including in a rather nerve shredding live interview with Huw Edwards for BBC News by yours truly) is around the issue of HGV routing and the regularly reported problem of lorries getting stuck down country lanes.

HGV drivers beware!

Obviously this isn’t a great situation for anyone. It disrupts the lives of residents but also creates a negative image for the haulage industry and disrupts delivery schedules costing time and money.

The problem lies with lorry drivers relying on sat navs designed to be used in cars. As I mentioned above, we aren’t responsible for routing, but we do collect information that would be of use to HGV drivers – low and weak bridges are clearly things best avoided – but this is only part of the solution.

We are particularly interested in working with local government to map local freight routes – those advised as the most appropriate by a local highways authority – so that a national map of so called ‘freight advisory routes’ can be built.

We hope that this would enable more consistent freight route mapping, providing guidance not only on which routes are to be avoided, but also the best and most sensible ones. With our data now available free at the point of use to all local authorities (via the Public Sector Mapping Agreement) we think this is a real possibility.

We also hope that such consistent and maintained mapping would be used by sat nav manufacturers to make their products reflect the very different needs of HGV drivers and car owners.

I hope that’s a useful explanation, but if you’ve got any comments or questions, just leave a comment and we’ll do our best to answer.

[sat nav photo by Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr]

[Long vehicle sign by Unhindered by Talent via Flickr]

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17 Responses

  1. Nick

    They should preload Sat Navs with ‘good driving’ messages to encourage better driving. Like “don’t stay in the middle lane” when driving on the motorway… drives me nuts (excuse the pun).

    1. CJ

      I agree with you Nick 🙂 I’m a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (it’s free to do the course, provided by IAM volunteers, all people have to pay for is the test, being a member might also reduce car insurance costs) , middle lane ‘hogging’ on Motorways and drivers not using their indicators on Motorways, and especially at roundabouts, ‘does my head in’.. I try to cope by thinking that every other driver is an ‘idiot’ lol! (“Defensive Driving”) That is to say, anticipate the unexpected behaviour of other motorists and don’t always rely on ‘indicators’ when they are shown.. people often forget to turn them off…

  2. Thanks for the great post.

    However you say “So essentially, we only supply the mapping and anything to do with routing ‘aint us guv’. Questions about routing…….[are] best asked to the company that made it.”

    I don’t think that is completely true about the routing aspect. The Ordnance Survey market OS MasterMap ITN which includes routing information (

    If a SatNav company were using OS MasterMap ITN I guess that they would want routing ‘out-of-the-box’ without having to add or collect more routing information. OS MM ITN should give this with as it says on the product page “Road Routing Information (routing information for drivers on mandatory and banned turns and other restrictions)”.

    I don’t think you can lay all the blame on routing mistakes with SatNav companies. Data providers (such as OS and other private mapping companies) have to take resposibility too which I can see you are doing.

    It sounds like you’re going in the right direction to improved data checking and guidance with the work with LA’s on ‘freight advisory routes’.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Chris, glad you enjoyed the post.

    You are right. Any sat nav company using ITN would want all the routing information they need ‘out-of-the-box’ as you say and we would not want them to have to collect anything further.

    Collecting information across the whole of GB is, after all, what we’re best at. We currently can supply more than 965,000 routing ‘instructions’ (actually they’re road-side signs surveyed by us that can end up as an ‘instruction’ to a driver using a sat nav) covering the whole Great Britain, and ITN is updated every six weeks.

    What this leaves of course, is turning all of our content – our data, into a routing system. So compressing the whole dataset into a small in-vehicle device capable of using a sophisticated routing algorithm applied to our data so that routes, usually based on a wide range of factors (quickest route, a route that avoids toll roads or motorways etc) can be calculated.

    This is the part of the jigsaw we’re not involved in – as I said at the top, we’re primarily data collectors.

    I hope that makes sense, but let me know if you have any questions.

    1. David Matthews

      Dear Paul,
      I have recently complained to Lincoln County Council. Speed limits have been changed, some for at least 5 years, but my sat nav is not up to date. Having got the council to change these limits for safety sake it is annoying to find that those who use their sat nav do not know of the change. They tell me,” Under the provisions of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, local authorities implement changes through Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs). The Orders inform people of highway changes and the likely effects they will have. TROs are made public and it would therefore be the responsibility of Sat Nav companies to update their mapping systems.”
      Now, as stated Sat Nav companies use OS digital maps. Is it that the OS maps are not up to date (in this case for 5 years) As you state, you would not read an old newspaper for up to date information, but this appears to be what is happening using OS supposed up to date digital maps

      1. Hi David
        Thanks for the question, but I’m afraid there isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. We do aim to capture all major change in Great Britain and have it ‘on the map’ within six months of completion, however, some satnav companies use our data and some do not. Of those that do, they choose how to use the data and how often to update it as part of their own business decisions. As a result of this, we would encourage customers with a satellite navigation query relating to features shown/not shown on their satnav or routing information, to contact their manufacturer/supplier. There’s a lot more detail around this answer and details to contact the two major suppliers on our website: http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/resources/sat-nav-data.html

        Thanks, Gemma

  4. Gareth

    Glad to see there its some work going into freight routes, I do think we’re rather backward with how freight use our road networks. Hopefully the routing companies will find using/including the data a financially viable option.

  5. John Trueman

    Midhurst expects a TRO and accompanying width restriction signs to be operative on the 19th October 2012. HGV’s on Sat Nav are currently blighting the Old Town, hitting Listed Buildings and getting stuck.
    How long does it usually take for the Council (WSCC in this case)to send in this data,the OS add it to maps and the info get into the Sat Nav Mapping Systems?
    We are so concerned with the expected delay that we’re applying to WSCC Highways for DO NOT FOLLOW SAT NAV SIGNS.

    1. Gemma

      Hi John, thanks for your comment. As it says in the article, it could take a couple of years to be in a new sat-nav in a shop. We aim to capture major changes within six months of completion, however, the changes to our data could take up to 12-18 months to become available within satellite navigation systems.

      This is because it must first be incorporated by our Licensed Partners into their data. The Partners subsequently make their own amendments and updates, such as adding routing information. The Partners then sell this information to navigation system manufacturers who put it into their satellite navigation devices. And as it says above, people with existing systems also need to be checking for updates to ensure their data is current.
      Thanks, Gemma

      1. Gemma,
        Thanks for the explanation.
        Re this comment “We aim to capture major changes within six months of completion,” is a Traffic Regulation Order with Width Restriction deemed a ‘major change? Is the OS responsible for ‘getting’ the TRO data from WSCC Highways or the other way around. Is there any way of speeding up this process?

        Midhurst has several historic Listed Buildings, such as the Spread Eagle Hotel – a popular wedding venue – which are getting damaged on a frequent basis as the result of HGV drivers, foreign and British, following Sat Nav through the Old Town. We cannot afford to wait two years for the TRO to get into Sat Navs. Every day the situation gets worse, and there is a real danger to staff and clients of the Spread and adjoining Swan Inn and shops. Owners have a Duty of Care in Listed Building law which they take very seriously. So you can understand why we’re worried – with the risk to life and limb too.

        You refer to Sat Nav in the shops. We’re much more concerned with existing Sat Nav HGV users not car owners. In March the Ministry of Transport announced new legislation was on its way to oblige Sat Nav companies to update their systems in a timely way. Where are we on this today? I’ve not seen any progress report. Will the proposed law oblige haulage companies to promptly update their Sat Navs too?

        It seems to me a recipe for procrastination at the moment with all the major organizations – including HMG – passing the buck and leaving the ‘victims’ of the Sat Nav market to take the pain whilst everyone else reaps the benefit. It’s obscene!

        1. Gemma

          Hi John, I’ve been doing a bit more investigation around your first point and as per our original article above, we collect and maintain a huge amount of information on the nation’s roads, and add major physical changes, such as new roads and changes to road layouts, and this data is available to use by private mapping companies who add their routing information on top, including ‘Traffic Regulation Order with Width Restriction’. As such, as we aren’t collecting these changes, we can’t comment on how other companies gather these changes or how often they update the information and you would need to clarify with them direct.

          We do, however, recognise the importance of mapping that can help route commercial traffic and in 2006-7 a national programme to collect physical weight and width restrictions at bridges only was completed. This was done and the resulting data is available across the public sector and through commercial licensing (in OS MasterMap® Integrated Transport Network™ Layer).

          Ordnance Survey has secured a contract with a data provider specialising in local authority change information (including Traffic Regulation Orders) and is now reviewing how change information of this nature can be best placed into products and subsequent publication.

          So while TROs may become a change we do capture going forward, it isn’t information we update provide at this point in time. It is information currently added by private mapping companies.

          Many thanks, Gemma

          1. John Trueman

            I note you’ve not commented on where the law is at the moment. Do you want to fill me in please?
            Do you have any well informed contact at the Ministry of Transport who could, perhaps, shed more light on the process whereby the mapping companies acquire their data?

            John Trueman

          2. Gemma

            Hi John
            Apologies for the omission, but Ordnance Survey are not the right people to comment on this legislation, you would need to speak to the Department for Transport as I understand they ran the satnav summit earlier this year. Their website’s contact pages are here http://www.dft.gov.uk/about/contact
            We also have the contact details for the private mapping companies that add information to satnavs available on our own website here http://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/oswebsite/support/satellite-navigation-gps-devices.html
            Thanks again

  6. Fred Hill

    Does OS or any manufacturer sell a system that will provide both sat nav, and ordnance survey maps with the GPS signal ?

    This may require that the sat nav is provided along with separate cards for the OS maps, or uses some other integrated sysem to offer these OS maps along with the road maps and commentary for the sat nav.

    1. Gemma

      Hi Fred

      It’s not something that we provide at Ordnance Survey I’m afraid. Maybe one of our other readers or Partners will know of a system that does this.

      Thanks, Gemma

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