Video: Nokia gets serious about vehicle navigation with Drive

If Nokia(s nok) doesn’t have already have a deal with an automaker to provide vehicle navigation services, then it’s definitely gunning for one. I recently had an opportunity to do a ride-along with the Nokia Maps – now rechristened Here — team in Chicago, and the one thing that struck me was just how much its updated Nokia Drive navigation service was designed to emulate an embedded vehicle navigation system.

Aaron Dannenbring, Nokia Location & Commerce VP of product management and field opps, said that many of the latest enhancements for the Nokia Drive are designed to bridge those final disparities between a dedicated in-vehicle nav system and a smartphone app. It’s added spoken street names, the ability to tailor your route, multitasking capabilities and a lot more 3D. Here’s a video of our interview for the details:


After our talk I tested out the latest version of the Drive software — a beta for Lumia Windows Phone 8 devices called Drive+ — using the new Lumia 822 offered by Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) for a few trail runs in the city and in a weekend trip to Wisconsin. I even pitted it against the in-dash nav system in my father-in-law’s minivan. I have to say, the experience was far better with Drive+ than with any other smartphone-based navigation system I’ve used.

First off, to fully utilize Drive+ you need to download map files from Here servers. These are no dinky files and you only select the geographies you plan to use. The map of California, for instance, is more than 200 MB, and the app requires you to make those transfers over Wi-Fi (so don’t wait until you’re in the car to set up the software). The maps are also vector-based, meaning it generates maps from data points rather than loading map images into your screen.

Nokia Lumia 800 Drive Navigation MapsThat not only makes the map flow on Drive practically seamless, but it also saves battery life and spares your data plan since the device isn’t constantly reaching out over its 3G or LTE radio to get the next set of map points. Most significantly, it allows Drive to function offline. If you lose your data connection, maps still works and it works well, as long as you can see GPS. I disabled the Lumia’s radios for 20 minutes and navigation continued to function without a single hitch.

I can’t emphasize how important that feature is if you truly want to use your phone as a vehicle nav system. A journey to some far-flung relative’s house in the boonies means I’m going to be driving out of 3G coverage quite regularly, which would render most phone-based nav systems useless. I was also impressed with by the Lumia’s ability to almost instantly capture and hold onto a GPS signal, though that’s more a function of hardware than the Drive software itself.

Nokia is also incorporating 3D across its mapping products, generated from laser arrays mounted on its mapping cars. I could find 3D constructs of every building in my neighborhood on though most of that information is stripped out in Nokia Drive. The nav software, however, does render a 3D image of your destination if available as well as other significant landmarks. It’s easy to see how this kind of technology could eventually be used to generate more user-friendly routes — instead of instructing a driver to turn left at 1st Street, the app could tell him to turn left at the giant donut or the 7-Eleven.

It looks to me like Nokia’s ambitions for Drive go well beyond the smartphone and extend to the car dashboard. There are already automakers exploring this kind of bring-your-own-navigation business model. Chevy(s gm), for instance, plans to launch a nav app called BringGo, which lives in the smartphone but upon entering the car immediately projects itself into the on-dash monitor of its MyLink infotainment system. It wouldn’t be the a stretch for Nokia to do the same thing if it secures the right automaker partner.

Nokia already sells map data for nav systems through its Navteq division, and its key software partner Microsoft(s msft) is a big player in the connected car OS space, powering Ford’s(s f) Sync system. In order for Drive to become an integrated connected car app, it would have to be platform agnostic, but Nokia is already moving in that direction. It launched its Here app for iOS last month and plans to do the same for Android in the first quarter. Here doesn’t have all of the features of Drive+, which is optimized for Nokia Lumia phones, or Drive, the version for other Windows Phone devices; but it could only be a matter of time.