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Thought leader: TomTom's Nick Cohn

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Improving things: TomTom aiming to find the optimum route to location technology

In the first of our new feature where we talk to some of the advanced traffic management sector’s thought leaders, Intertraffic has the pleasure of the company of Nick Cohn, senior product manager for TomTom’s traffic unit. An American who has spent more than half of his life in the Netherlands, Cohn tells us how TomTom have embraced the unprecedented disruption that the Coronavirus pandemic has caused in 2020, how the company is maintaining its position as a market leader and, just as importantly, who Nick Cohn is and how he sees the present and future of his organisation. The vast majority of companies of the scope and size of TomTom (at the last count it had 4500 employees in 30 countries with its headquarters only an admittedly gargantuan stone’s throw from the RAI) have product managers, but what, we asked, does that entail for him?

“I manage the development of a portfolio of products that we call Traffic Analytics, so it's using traffic data, both historical and real time, for use cases in all kinds of business segments. For traffic management, for automotive, drivetrain, calibration, for looking at how energy demand may be changing, how mobility is changing, location-specific characteristics, like busy traffic or traffic delay. And one of the things that's included in my portfolio, which your readers will hopefully know about, is the TomTom Traffic Index that we publish every year comparing congestion levels across the world.”

Covering 416 cities across 57 countries on six continents, TomTom’s Traffic Index, launched in 2011, ranks urban congestion worldwide and provides free access to city-by-city information. Drivers, city planners, automakers and policy-makers alike can use the index to help tackle traffic-related challenges using real-time and historical data to provide deep, insightful data.

Intertrafic’s Thought Leadership series is as much about providing some insight into the thought processes of prominent individuals as the companies they work for, so we asked Nick Cohn to provide a little bit of that a forementioned insight into how he came to hold this position at such an internationally recognised company with an instantly recognized brand? For Cohn, it’s all about the journey, in every respect.

“I'm from the US originally,” he begins, “but I’ve lived a little bit more than half my life in the Netherlands. My background is in geography and metrics, but really specifically, travel behaviour, how people make travel choices, about where, when, and how they travel. I worked in that field, in consulting for different types of industries for some time. Then in 2007, when TomTom was first implementing real-time information as part of navigation devices - we were the first one to do it. That's when I came to TomTom because I wanted to work on what was happening with the future of mobility.”

Dovetailing beautifully with the themes of Intertraffic, the future of mobility has never been higher up the global agenda as it is now. “Back then, even on the driver's side, it was a revolution, which now seems ‘every day’, but it wasn't in 2007, it was new. So, because of my background in travel behaviour and in traffic simulation, that's how I ended up working at TomTom. And since then, if we look at my product portfolio now, one of my personal goals is to see how we can use this rich data for helping make decisions in other areas. So where do we make smarter infrastructure investments? Where do we decide what locations are most valuable for retail or outdoor advertising? What kind of insurance risk is there for a given part of the road network?”

When Cohn started his career at TomTom these achievements weren’t far beyond the realms of fantasy, but now all of these things are actually possible and, as Cohn himself says, ‘every day’, something that isn’t lost on him at all.

“It’s because we have all of this data and I would say that ultimately one of the things that keeps me excited about this is TomTom has an overall corporate mission, which is to reduce emissions, reduce congestion and improve travel safety. And those are things that with the data that I work with in my product development we can help to achieve. It's a business but we also have an overriding goal to improve things.”

A strong position in real-time traffic services

On the day we talked with Nick Cohn, TomTom announced that its full stack of navigation components – maps, connected navigation, and real-time traffic services – had been chosen by Mitsubishi Motors to power the new Eclipse Cross’ infotainment system. The company is clearly in a strong position, despite rumblings to the contrary when it sold its fleet management business to Bridgestone for €910 million in 2019, but what does Cohn see as his own strengths? What does he bring to the metaphorical table?

“I think what I bring to the table is that I really enjoy listening to an organization or a particular individual's challenges they're faced with and see how we can make it easier, how we can not necessarily solve the whole problem but at least provide some of the tools to solve that problem. That's how we go about trying to innovate and develop new products. That's really what drives us to try to create and develop new ideas into solutions for things that people, businesses and government organizations struggle with on a day-to-day basis. I think my strength is trying to connect those two. I think that's why I'm a Product Manager.”

"I really enjoy listening to an organization’s challenges and see how we can make it easier. Not to necessarily solve the whole problem but at least provide some of the tools."

It’s clear that mobility, the art of moving people and goods around, and increasing access to it is what motivates Cohn.

“From the beginning of my working life if have found that the concept of mobility interested me… it's still interesting. In fact, I think it's getting even more interesting because it's changing. This year has totally changed everything and it has changed people, or more specifically their behaviour, whether they wanted it to or not. People have been forced to try out different things - that's something that has been really interesting this year. The content of traffic information that we collect has really reflected those changes. Our biggest challenge,” he continues, “is how do we use that information to help predict? What are the new patterns going to be like? And how do we anticipate that for business, for the public, for governments? So those are things that we're thinking about and working on now.”

TomTom: A lot more than just satnav

Ask the entirely fictitious man in the street what TomTom is and it’s more than likely that their answer will contain the word “satnav” at some point, but TomTom is, of course, a lot more than a provider of digital maps. A whole lot more. How, then, would Cohn describe his employer of 13 years, that brought in over €700m in revenue in 2019, and its activities and its core business to somebody who doesn't know much about it? Imagine for a moment that the readers of this article are uninitiated.

Says Cohn: “Today, TomTom is a location technology company. That means that we create and provide maps, we create and provide traffic information, routing, and location services, so for any person or object we can provide location information and all of the characteristics around the location to help decision making. The industries that we serve are wide-ranging. One is, of course, the automotive market. A recent deal that you may have seen was with Fiat Chrysler where we're providing maps and traffic. Another one in different kinds of mobility is Uber, where we recently renewed our maps and traffic deal. We have customers that use us in smartphones, that use us in geographic information systems platforms, for Financial Services and economic prediction, for energy prediction.”

The key to TomTom’s recent success is that the company has a wide variety of different ways of delivering map data traffic information, to make it easy to incorporate it into all kinds of platforms for lots of different industries.

“I would say that also one of our important characteristics is that we are working to plan for what mobility is going to look like. We provide maps for autonomous vehicles to use so that they can automatically navigate and pick routes themselves, but also be sure of exactly where they are for safety purposes. We also provide location data for electric vehicles, information on where charging stations are and if they're available. We're really working to make all of that possible. My product portfolio is all about providing traffic information on speed, travel times and day trip patterns from one area to another for traffic planning purposes, but also for all kinds of other applications across different industries.”

“One of our important characteristics is that we are working to plan for what mobility is going to look like. We provide maps for autonomous vehicles to use so that they can automatically navigate and pick routes themselves”

The route to autonomy

Intertraffic’s Automated Driving webinar and interview article with AV guru Richard Bishop was of great interest to TomTom for a number of location technology-specific reasons. In terms of driverless vehicles navigation it is absolutely key and Cohn and his team are keenly involved.

“We started on the mapping side, making really high precision maps, some much higher precision than what you would ordinarily need, for example, for geographic information systems or even for smartphone navigation. You need really high precision maps for autonomous vehicles. They have sensors that allow them to see things around them, but they need very high precision to be sure when to slow down to reach a curve, or when something unexpected happens. In addition they need to know exactly where they are, to respond properly, for safety systems, and for making navigation decisions.

“First, we started with making maps for autonomous driving on motorways and highways, because that's the first place where manufacturers wanted to test AVs. Plus it was the first place where they were legally allowed to be tested. The next challenge is that we’re extending those maps to eventually cover everything. Those vehicles will need to be in autonomous mode from start to finish for an entire trip, plus they may not be allowed to navigate fully automatically for some years to come. However, at least we will have the maps available.”

With no opportunity to rest on their corporate laurels, Cohn and his colleagues are now focused on developing the complex layers of services that sit atop the map.

“With the traffic information that we have, you may need to evaluate if it is safe for a vehicle to be using its fully autonomous functions, given the traffic conditions around it,” he explains. “If there are no other vehicles it's not a problem. If there are a lot of other vehicles, you might decide, well, we don't know for sure if the autonomous sensors and the software can respond fast enough to a very, very crowded traffic situation, so we may want to have it automatically shut off and return it to the driver. We can provide all of those locations, specific types of information, both historical and real time.”

COVID-19: skip peak travel

Covid-19 has, as evinced earlier, has changed everything, even down to how journalists ask questions. A year ago this would be a very simple question with, typically, a well-informed but nonetheless simple answer, but now? Not so simple. Where, we asked Cohn, did he see himself and TomTom being in the next five years and, crucially, what is the strategy for getting there?

“Well, first of all, that is a great question, because Intertraffic is one of the main events where you can find out what other people are thinking about and planning for, so for it not to be able to happen is really tough. But this year has actually accelerated some things that were already happening. Let's face it for 30 years we've talked about working from home, which we used to call telecommuting. That sounds really antiquated. Now, the way that people travel has changed and we have seen the depicted in the Traffic Index. I've always been disappointed that everyone is just massively sticking to the peak periods but I'm now really encouraged that as some studies have come back, the morning peak is not happening in the same way that it used to. And that could save us all time, fuel, aggravation, stress, lost productivity, emissions. People's behaviour is changing in a good way, so that we can skip some of that unnecessary peak travel. We also saw that there was a big dip in new car sales. But that didn't happen so much for electric vehicles. Some countries that still have tax advantages and incentives for electric vehicles have actually seen acceleration of the share of electric vehicles in the market. I think that will continue. So that's something that TomTom has also been planning for with the services that we have.”

"The morning peak not happening could save us all time, fuel, aggravation, stress, lost productivity and emissions.

An educated guess

There’s a line in the Crowded House song Four Seasons In One Day that says “It doesn’t pay to make predictions” but, to finish our fascinating conversation with the loquacious Cohn, Intertraffic asks him to eschew Neil Finn’s lyrics and take an educated guess as to how the location tech sector will look in the next year or so.

“You have companies like Uber who have also moved into door-to-door delivery services and logistics, not just passenger services. All of those things have taken off this year, but we also provide a lot of services for the logistics market. And I think that's something we targeted, that has absolutely accelerated this year. So we can see that our routing, our predictive traffic information, our maps, our logistics and planning services, all are well positioned for this kind of acceleration,” he responds with admirable enthusiasm.

“Uber have moved into door-to-door delivery services and logistics and they have really taken off this year, but we also provide a lot of services for the logistics market”

“I think that we can do much more with our traffic prediction. And not only on the level of individual drivers, but looking at how the whole city network is happening minute-to-minute. This can really help to optimise routing in order to reduce travel congestion for everyone. We're also looking at how we can build a new business model for that, and encourage reduction of congestion and emissions. This is part of our mission, but we should at the same time, use all these changes that people are making, to end up with a new technology and a new business model for a better outcome.”

There’s little to argue with there, but Cohn finishes by touching upon the subject of micromobility, another topic covered by the Intertraffic webinars in 2020.

“Ultimately, I think what we need to think about is if you look at all of the shared scooters, shared bikes, those types of things that have really exploded this year, I have to admit that we're not in that part of mobility right now. To what extent can we actually help those modes as well and help people make better choices?”


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