Silicon Valley Limousine Drivers Know Their Way Around

By Calvin Chu

In the chauffeuring industry, knowing the fastest and safest routes through traffic is essential if you want to stay in business, particularly when your major clientele are Silicon Valley corporate executives for whom time is money.

Sunnyvale, California-based Sal’s Limousine has found a way to give its customers the best possible trip experience. This year the company installed a combination GPS/PDA navigation system in its luxury limos. Not only do these portable navigation systems help drivers easily locate and navigate to a customer’s destination, they also serve as organizers and entertainment devices for the drivers during wait times.

Sal’s, which has a fleet of 12 Mercedes, Cadillac and Lincoln limousines, caters primarily to corporate executives. The majority of driver trips are from the Silicon Valley to Bay Area airports or to meetings, although longer trips, such as the 400 mile drive to Los Angeles, are sometimes requested. Most of Sal’s passengers use a limousine service because it allows them to catch up on work rather than waste an hour or two crawling through Bay Area traffic.

The last thing a busy executive wants is to have his chauffeur ask him a lot of questions, such as where he wants to go and how to get there. At Sal’s Limousine, the clientele don’t have to tell the driver anything. The driver already knows the destination and exactly how to get there, thanks to the WayPoint portable navigation system, which is both a GPS and PDA. The WayPoint is manufactured by Mobile Crossing.

The unit only weighs 6.2 ounces; it is very mobile. Drivers can remove it from its cradle mount on their limos and take it anywhere. Many drivers take the units home with them after work so they can plan their upcoming trips. Before the next day’s assignments, they can check their Pocket PC -based personal organizers, which contain the addresses and most frequent destinations of their regular clientele. In Pocket PC mode, the driver can access the calendar, contacts, tasks and the mapping program, which has nationwide coverage.

The unit is mounted in the car, but can also be removed and used elsewhere, which is handy for the drivers. (Click for larger view)

There’s no need to call the dispatcher, as drivers did in the past, to get their daily assignments, ask for the correct spelling of a name, or get directions for the pick-up or destination. Everything is already in the system. The driver can just click on the name and pop up the address and a map. Once underway, voice directions take over. A text-to-speech module reads street names aloud.

“The drivers love having a portable GPS,” said Jana Hamdy, Sal’s office manager. “Not only do they improve our efficiency by giving us pinpoint directions, they are also a great organizer and a nice way for waiting drivers to pass the time because they can play games or listen to music on the PDA while waiting for their clientele since it’s also a Web browser.”

Another attractive feature, according to Hamdy, is the 3.5” TFT display. “The WayPoint automatically adjusts the color scheme and brightness depending on whether it’s day or night. There’s no problem seeing the screen, even in direct sunlight.”

“We also like the shortcut keys that open to commonly traveled destinations, detour routing, speed and location display, and access to Traffic Watch and weather reports,” she added. “Traffic Watch alerts drivers to impending traffic delays and suggests the best routes.”

TrafficWatch, a subscription-based service that is integrated with WayPoint, has an interface that is finger driven and allows access to the most relevant information when on the road. TrafficWatch works with and without a live Net connection when on the road.

Traffic and weather reports are of particular benefit to fleet operators. With a limo service, for example, knowing the fastest route to the airport or a meeting site is important, but what happens if there is an accident or other unforeseen traffic problem on the preferred route?

Without a GPS system to guide the driver around traffic problems, he might drive right into the mess. The GPS system gives Sal’s a distinct advantage over other limo companies that may just rely on the local news radio station for traffic and weather reports, because it can help the driver get across town with traffic and weather reports in real time.

“The GPS units have a lot of convenience and safety features,” Hamdy said. “The drivers like the way you can set your current location as a favorite and display the nearest points of interest and call up an upcoming turn. Another nice feature is pop up messages that notify the driver of nearby points of interest.”

The portability of the navigation system has an added advantage over factory-installed navigation units to fleet owners like Sal’s. Recently, one of their limos was in an accident. Since there was no damage to the GPS, they simply moved it to another vehicle. If it had been factory installed, they would have needed to replace the unit.
Hamdy, who confesses she is “technology challenged,” said she had the units up and running in just a few minutes. Using a GPS navigation system for optimized routing can shave time and gas off every route, leading to huge savings.

One advantage of having a combined GPS/PDA unit is that it allows the operator to download or input the customer data into the contact list and the driver to route to it directly from the contact list. The unit keeps a driving log file and the owner operator can examine this file to evaluate the driver’s performance.
“GPS has made my job a lot easier and more productive,” said Fady Salem, who has been a Sal’s driver for seven years. “Instead of spending time planning my daily routes, or calling the office for directions, or looking at Internet-based mapping services, I just enter customer addresses and destinations from home and let the GPS take care of everything else, including selecting the best route and then directing me there.”

According to Newport Communications Group (2004), 22 percent of fleets in the United States consist of over 500 vehicles per fleet. If using a navigation system saves 10 minutes per day per vehicle, the return-on-investment savings in billable hours will be substantial and it will give fleet operators a technology edge that will help them be more productive and efficient.

Published Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Written by Calvin Chu

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