The Sunday Times - Technology
Autonomous cars promise to drive recovery for the Dutch mapping company
London’s traffic gets most people down at some point, but for Harold Goddijn it represents a special kind of hell. TomTom’s co-founder and chief executive is 25 minutes late to his meeting and is very frustrated.“
I know. ‘If you’re so smart, why are you so late?’ ” he says, blaming the proprietary software in his taxi driver’s vehicle. He is sure that a TomTom, possibly the most famous satnav brand, would have directed his car around the capital’s traffic, but there was nothing he could do about it from the back seat.
There was a time when TomTom and Garmin, its Nasdaq-quoted rival, graced most car dashboards and laid claim to ending the traditional in-car arguments after a wrong turn.“ We were the Google Maps in the stone age,” said Mr Goddijn, whose paper fortune soared to more than €1 billion during the Dutch company’s heyday, when its stock market value hit €5 billion. However, smartphones and the decision by carmakers to build maps into dashboards put the brakes on TomTom.
Written off as an also-ran, it has navigated its way through the lean years, in which losses and debt threatened its existence, and has put its maps in position for the future. Apple now uses TomTom’s maps for its app, while Uber signed a deal to use its data last year. The stock, which is quoted in Amsterdam, has more than doubled since its nadir five years ago.“
A lot of people didn’t think we would bounce back,” Mr Goddijn said, describing how TomTom had returned to growth last year, including in the consumer market. “We are going to accelerate and go faster and faster. We have got rid of the idea we are playing for extra time.”
The company has been linked with takeover talk, but part of its continuing independence is perhaps because Mr Goddijn, who has been chief executive since 2001, with his wife controls about a quarter of the shares. The couple, who met working for Psion, the British high-tech high-flyer of the 1990s, show no signs of wanting to sell.
Indeed, they have launched wearable technology under the TomTom brand, going head-to-head with Apple and Fitbit. The company also has launched an action camera — the Bandit — in the style of a GoPro. Yet it is maps where TomTom sees its future, as the push toward driverless cars plays into its hands. Several German car companies bought Here, Nokia’s mapping business, last year, rather than using Google. TomTom, as an independent player, could became the go-to shop for other carmakers.
Accurate mapping is essential for the autonomous car revolution (or “the mother of all disruptions”, in Mr Goddijn’s words), as the car’s sensors cannot navigate without external information. “You need to locate the car on the road without a glimmer of a doubt.” The chief executive believes that it is TomTom’s big opportunity and likens it to the Dutch cartographers in the 16th century, who developed the first nautical maps and gave their country a big competitive advantage.
TomTom’s offices overlook the docks where those ships sailed off centuries ago and Mr Goddijn believes the company can forge a new reputation with driverless cars. “It would be arrogant to assume we will be around in 100 years but we are very aware of the opportunities that chaos can create,” he said.