How local Chinese navigation apps are fulfilling users’ needs

When we are conducting vehicle relevant studies, there is one thing that we hear again and again from Chinese users, especially owners of foreign car brands: “The built-in navigation system in the car is terrible, I only use my phone to navigate.”

One reason the car navigation systems are disliked is because of the hardware: the system does not run as smoothly as the users are expecting it, sometimes it even gets frozen.

Another important China-specific factor is the timeliness. Users in China need real-time information on the navigation system due to two main factors: unexpected traffic jams and unexpected construction work/road damages.


  • Traffic jam:

Taking Beijing as an example, there are over 6,350,000 cars in this 16,808 km² city. Traffic jam belongs to daily life. Just search for images with the keyword “Beijing traffic” to get a feeling, if this number is too abstract for you. Of course, one can argue that the quantity overloads the road system. So if you get on the road early / late enough, you can avoid the rush hour. But this only works when some other conditions are fulfilled.


  • Individual driving behavior:

It is interesting to observe in various cities or countries how cars behave in stressful situations in order to understand how the drivers are connecting with the environment. It is always fun to see how drivers react when they are about to pass an intersection but the road in front is actually building a queue already. Based on the theories we have learned from driving schools, the best thing to do is not to cross the intersection even the traffic light is green, but to wait until there is enough space for you on the other side.


Most Chinese drivers do not care, they drive through and park in the middle of the intersection, blocking the path for cars coming from the left and right side. As if the situation is not bad enough, once the lights turn green for the paths on the left and right side, cars will also gather to the middle of the intersection. In this case, the whole traffic gets frozen. Drivers from behind see this situation and get stressed, because everyone wants to pass this frozen intersection as soon as possible, so they all try to move forward to the middle of the knot. 1 hour later, a policeman will arrive to solve this puzzle. What sounds funny is normal on China’s streets.


What does this mean for the navigation map: Individual driving behavior is one key factor causing a traffic jam. It is not predictable, but drivers from far away want to get informed as soon as there is a tiny sign of possible traffic jams in order to avoid it. Getting stuck in a traffic jam often means staying still for 1 hour. So the map data update needs to be very fast in order to offer real-time information. 


  • Road network planning:

If you search for a map of Beijing’s roads, you can see a lot of big and small paths. You might think, every road leads to Rome. If there is a traffic jam, I will just turn left on the next corner. Well, this only works in a world where every road is free for public use.


The term “gated residential communities” might be new for people who have never been to China. But imagine a big park where you have to buy a ticket for entry, there are fences on the outside and several entrances, right? This is how a gated residential community looks like, but the fences mean to ensure security for people who are living in it. A lot of roads showed on the maps are roads in the gated residential communities and they are sometimes not accessible to the public, especially for cars who just want to drive through because it is too noisy and dangerous for the residents. In this case, not every road leads to Rome, most of the cars have to stay on the main road, what causes traffic jams.


What does this mean for the navigation map: It is not enough to only recognize roads with traffic jam, it is also helpful to make several alternative and accessible route recommendations in time. As mentioned, the roads in gated residential communities are sometimes not accessible, sometimes, however, really can lead you to Rome. There is no rule whether a path is accessible or not. It can change from day to day, so it is literally a game of luck. Users need to have several route options to try out and they are happy when they’ve discovered “secret” paths guiding them out of traffic jams.


  • Unexpected construction works/road damages

In Germany, you can read announcements like “We are planning to repair the highway A9 from April 2020 to September 2021” – almost one year before the construction work starts.


Certainly, road constructions will be planned in advance in China, but it is just not being communicated to the public in a transparent way on time. This requires navigation maps to offer real-time information on time as well.


How do the local Chinese navigation map apps keep on offering real time information?

One of the most liked points the Chinese navigation maps have gotten from the users is their timeliness. How do they achieve this? There are mainly two sources to keep the information up to date, one is professional teams that belong to the firms and another is the users using the apps.

  • Professional teams:  Searching for recruiting information using the keyword "map data", it turns out, this industry has broken down into very parts. There are plenty of small firms doing different tasks, some are being purchased by the big navigation app players already.


  • End users: In the local apps, you can always find a small icon on the surface corner: “Report”. Once you click this button, the location you are at the moment will be recorded. Once you have reached the destination, the app will ask you to fulfill a very simple formula to gather further detailed information, like “There is construction”, “Road damage”, “Road is not accessible” etc. It will take some time for the firm to confirm the report, then the whole map data will be updated within 24 hours if the reported information is true.


Of course the following question comes up: There is a whole firm with probable hundreds or thousands of people working on their navigation app product, how many people in a car manufacture firm are working on their navigation app? And which priority do navigation apps have in the product portfolio in a car manufacture firm?

Can they really stay competitive on the Chinese market? The Chinese always say: The specialist only masters his own field. This means everyone has his strengths and should work on it till he becomes a specialist. Furthermore, we as users trust those who have focused on their special field and thus are able to offer the best service.

This leads to the final thought: Does it make sense for car manufacturers do develop their own navigation system or should they just cooperate with app providers? A cooperation could positively influence the driving pleasure so users could experience the maximum benefit. 


Author: Yue Liu, Spiegel Institut Mannheim

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