“Most maps, including Google Maps, have not yet mapped the area.” – The Huffingtonpost (Sept. 2012) describing the Angelika Film Center in the Mosaic District of Merrifield, Va.

Can automakers, dealers, Tier One suppliers, and automotive app developers afford to continue requiring customers to pay ($199!) for annual map updates? My latest navigation adventure highlights the fact that the time has arrived both for “free” lifetime map updates in the car and more creative means for delivering monthly, weekly, DAILY! map updates for on-board navigation systems.

The map in the car has become the spinal cord for safety, powertrain, security, infotainment, and navigation systems.  Nearly every advanced system in the car requires access to location information – preferably on-board.

Increasingly, the on-board map is becoming a shared resource both for advanced driver assist systems and contextually aware infotainment systems.  For both of these cases context is determined, in part, by location along with weather, traffic and driver status among other things.

But there is an even more urgent issue, that I will return to, and that is the danger inherent in a driver following navigation instructions with an out of date map.  Few things are more distracting or disturbing than being told to make turns onto roads that don’t exist to enter freeways that have been bypassed.

All of these elements were brought home to me this past weekend.

My wife and I were trying to get to the relatively new Angelika Film Center in the Mosaic District of Merrifield, Va. last Sunday.  It was our first trip to this theater, so I was confident that neither the address nor the name of the Theater would be available in the on-board navigation system in my 2013 BMW 3 Series.  (This assumption would later prove to be accurate.)

To get to the theater I used Fullpower’s MotionX GPS navigation app on my iPhone 4.  MotionX is one of the most popular navigation apps on the iPhone.  Unfortunately, on this occasion, it insisted on directing my wife and I to a destination five miles away from the theater’s actual location.  (UPDATE: This was due to the fact that the Nokia map data was missing the information for my destination, according to Philippe Kahn, CEO of Fullpower.)

My wife then proceeded to look up the theater in the on-board POIs, with no success.  We then obtained the address online and attempted to enter it directly into the navigation system – ignoring the fact that the system in the car will not accept addresses that are not yet in the system.  So, in this case, we entered the street number closest to the actual address of the film center.

Half an hour after the movie’s start time we arrived at the cinema.  We accepted our fate and settled into a round of shopping and dinner and went to the next show – making for a later evening than originally planned.  (At least the toney establishment had toasted caramel popcorn!)

It was a minor event at the close of an otherwise uneventful weekend, but it highlights a huge problem that remains unsolved – on-board map updates.  (Yes, there are a few ways this unfortunate incident might have been avoided such as: a) using the Sendtocar function, which for some reason has not been working for my car; b) use the on-board Google Local Search to obtain the address – just checked and this would have indeed worked; c) ring up the BMW Assist Concierge service and have them download the address; or d) try a different mobile navigation app.)

Anyone who has been through a similar experience will appreciate the minor nightmare of not being able to find a simple destination.  You can imagine my wife and I pulling over into parking lots and side streets to double-check the entry and the results and to try a different approach.  I shudder to think about the amount of eyes-off-road time that was required before we found a solution and reached our destination.

But my minor nightmare is a terrifying reality.  Not only is the out-of-date map situation a nuisance, it is a driving hazard and a customer satisfaction failure.  It is no surprise, then, that JD Power identifies navigation systems as a source of ongoing and mounting complaints for car owners.

While JD Power is focused primarily on the user interface, it is time for the industry to confront the fact that every car being sold is going out the door with an obsolete map.  An obsolete map on board is an invitation to catastrophe for the car dealer, the manufacturer and the customer.  Yet no one seems especially worried or concerned.

The problem is most obvious in emerging markets where new cities and roads are proliferating on an almost-daily basis highlighting the limitations of digitized map in the car.  It is no wonder that Strategy Analytics’ research with navigation users in China has found the typical driver using multiple navigation systems - phone, on-board and portable navigation device – to get from point A to point B.

The good news is that the leading map makers – TomTom and Nokia – have progressed their map-building processes to enable daily if not real-time map updates on a global scale.  Nokia has even taken steps to put more of its surveying vehicles on the road while also providing for crowdsourcing of map data, something TomTom initiated many years earlier.  The problem lies in delivering those updates to the on-board system.

Most consumers these days will use their mobile phones to navigate if a destination is in a new or unusual location.  I will not delve into the shortcomings of mobile phone navigation in a car, but suffice it to say it is popular based on the findings of multiple Strategy Analytics surveys.

Car makers Ford, GM and Toyota Motor Europe have tried with varying success to enable display in the car of smartphone-based navigation instructions.  Ford was first with this approach and has had the most success.

But smartphone-based navigation defeats the integration of the map – the application spinal cord of the car – into advanced safety, powertrain and infotainment systems.  While smartphones can, indeed, deliver a contextual experience to the driver, the on-board map is necessary to properly anticipate workload demands on the driver based on the integration of on-board sensors with map-based and other inputs.

So, smartphone integration, while attractive and a useful car-selling proposition falls short of a fully integrated experience.  But that doesn’t mean the smartphone can’t provide another means to solving this dilemma.

At the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Johnson Controls showed a solution from NNG using the smartphone as a map updating tool.  While the details were not clear – including whether the entire map or just portions of the map will be updated or, indeed, what the cost will be – the concept is spectacular.

Any driver getting into a car ought to be able to update the on-board maps on demand as needed.  Given current connectivity options, the smartphone is the smartest and best solution to this problem.

The fact that Johnson Controls is the first to show this approach publicly reflects the power of a newcomer entering the market.  While NNG works closely with other Tier Ones, such as Harman, it is Johnson Controls that put the concept front and center in its booth in Detroit, although no press release was published.

Based on conversations with competing navigation software providers, the likelihood is that competing systems and solutions will soon be on display.  The bottom line is that, once again, the smartphone represents the solution to a hazardous driving condition, not the source.  At stake is the mitigation of driver distraction, enhancing the driving experience and assuring the highest level of customer satisfaction.