Driving lost is now harder to do, thanks to increasingly popular navigation systems.
By JEAN HELLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 24, 2000
When Jim Randel calls himself a "toy geek," he isn't talking Lego blocks and Day-Glo Slinkies. Randel thinks bigger. Much bigger.
After he decided to trade his truck for a sport utility vehicle, the data base consultant picked a Mercedes ML430, which carries a base price of $43,750 and, as standard equipment, an on-board navigation system.
It can tell him how to get from Point A to Point B in Tampa or from his Lutz home to City Hall in Seattle, Wash. It comes complete with rolling maps and a pleasant voice to give him directions such as, "Hard right turn in point-five miles."
"If I have multiple stops to make around town, and no appointed time for them, it will give me the most efficient routing and guide me to each place," Randel said. "And I made a trip to New Jersey with it and found it very handy when I ran into road closures that required detours."
Aside from the ubiquitous cellular phone, on-board navigation is one of the most popular automotive electronic gizmos around today, though with price tags that can reach $2,600, not everybody who wants one can afford it.
"They're exotic now, but in a few years they will be everywhere," predicted Joe Zammataro of Crown Eurocars in St. Petersburg. "It's like air conditioning. After you got your first car with air conditioning, could you even imagine owning one without it?"
Interest in the systems is expected to grow in the wake of a May order by President Clinton that improves their accuracy. At the heart of all on-board navigation systems is access to 24 Defense Department global positioning satellites, launched in the 1980s to circle the Earth like a bracelet. When combined with mapping data, they can find a vehicle and guide it from place to place.
The Defense Department had been jamming the signals for civilian users, making them accurate only to within 300 feet, a large margin for error. After Clinton's order, civilian users have the same pinpoint accuracy as the military.
The highway vehicle models work very much like global positioning systems on boats, though the dry-land versions are much more complex since car travel is rarely a straight-line proposition.
And they offer more than point-to-point directions. In multiple languages, they will find and direct you to points of interest, restaurants, the nearest hospital, ATMs, police stations, gasoline stations, entertainment and more. You can choose routes with the most interstate or the least, the shortest route or the fastest, toll roads or not. You can exclude roads you don't want the system to consider, perhaps because of construction delays.
A few systems are interactive voice only. But most come with monitors, like small television sets. They display maps of where you are, which direction you should be going, which direction you actually are going, geographic features, cross streets and railroad tracks. They display a rolling image of your progress.
As you close in on a point where you should make a directional change, they alert you, provide a close-up map of the turn you should make, complete with arrows, and emit an electronic "ta-da" at the moment you should be making the maneuver.
If you make a wrong turn, the systems tell you to return to your designated route. If you don't, they come up with a new route from where you've strayed.
The most sophisticated systems will call for help if they sense the air bags deploy and provide a medical alert button you can push yourself in other emergencies. Some systems connect you to a real, live person in an emergency or if you get lost or need hotel, theater or restaurant reservations.
The growing sophistication of the systems, along with other in-car options like faxes and televisions, coincides with a growing government concern about the dangers of distracted drivers. All the gizmos detract from the most basic training that says: both eyes on the road, both hands on the wheel.
"Driver distraction in all its forms is a real threat to the safety of American roads," said Rosalyn Millman, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in opening a hearing in Washington last week. "This threat is growing and growing fast."
Still, more devices are headed to the highways.
In February, the Hertz Corp., entered into a $50-million joint venture with the Magellan Corp., a manufacturer of on-board navigation systems, to install 50,000 GPS systems in rental cars in the United States, Canada and Europe. Hertz calls its system NeverLost, and that is pretty much a true assessment. Pretty much.
A three-day test drive with NeverLost proved successful in all respects but one. A reporter programmed the device to direct the car to the headquarters of the St. Petersburg Times at 490 First Ave. S in St. Petersburg. One try was from Tampa, one from mid Pinellas County and one from extreme southern St. Petersburg.
In each case, the computer took the car to 490 First Ave. S in St. Pete Beach.
"They're not foolproof yet," said Mike Lambie, director of product marketing for Magellan. "It's a matter of incomplete mapping data, and all these systems use the same mapping data. But it's getting better all the time."
Even Randel's unit makes mistakes, and the Mercedes system is at the high end of technology.
"Coming back from New Jersey, I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and it tried to loop me around onto a road that would have taken me back onto the bridge going in the opposite direction," Randel said.
Reliability should improve as mistakes and "holes" in the mapping software are fixed and plugged.
"When we hear from a customer that the system has made a mistake, we report it to the mapping people, and it's a very simple matter to pull it up and fix it," said Dave Logan, director of field systems for Hertz.
Lambie adds that for Magellan, Hertz customers are "the world's largest focus group."
If the navigation systems sometimes fail, there are other times they give drivers information overload. On a trip back from the east coast of Florida a few months ago, a reporter driving a car with the NeverLost system aboard was warned, "Slight right turn in one mile." It turned out to be a bend in the road.
Then, as the car settled onto Interstate 4 east of Orlando, the NeverLost system instructed, "Left turn in 92 miles." There's nothing like plenty of warning.
The systems come as standard equipment on a growing number of cars, but are people going out of their way to buy them?
The answer is yes, but the market is specialized.
"I haven't as yet sold one," said Jim Bryant, general sales manager of Ed Morse Cadillac in Brandon. "But most of the people we deal with aren't into that. Their age group is 68 to 80 or older, people who don't put 20,000 miles on a car in three years."
Even at the larger Tampa store, sales manager Phil Raskin said he has only sold a few units, which are standard on the highest end Cadillacs and a $1,995 option on the rest.
"The demand hasn't been strong," Raskin said.
One reason might be that all Cadillacs come equipped with General Motors' OnStar system which, in many respects, duplicates on-board navigation and trumps it with more services. It combines GPS with wireless communications and, when activated, puts the driver in touch with a real, live person who can provide directions and concierge services.
When the car's air bags deploy, a service adviser is notified and immediately tries to call the driver. If there is no response, emergency help is sent to the vehicle's location, determined by GPS.
This reverse use of on-board navigation can also be used to locate a stolen vehicle.
OnStar is available on 29 models in the GM fleet and on Saab and, soon, on Acura.
But, like the automated systems, OnStar has its holes. All of the service advisers are in Michigan and work from the same mapping system used by the GPS-based navigators. A lack of personal knowledge of an area has resulted in wrong directions.
And, if your car happens to be going through an area without cellular coverage, you're out of luck and out of touch.
New car buyers aren't the only drivers who have access to on-board navigation. Pioneer, Alpine and Eclipse, among others, which manufacture navigation systems for new vehicles, also make them for the automotive after-market.
"Most major stereo manufacturers have units with GPS available," said Keith Ridley, manager of Boulevard Custom Auto Sound and Accessories of Pinellas Park. "We just pop the stereo unit out of your dash and pop the new system in. When you sell the car, bring it back and we'll swap out the units again and put the GPS in your new car."
Nor do you need to think about getting a navigation system for each car or truck you own.
In addition, the same system being installed in Hertz cars, the 750Nav, is available with a docking port, and multiple docking ports are available for about $200. Just pop the brain out of one car and pop it in another." Next month, Magellan plans to introduce a portable model.
"We developed a way to operate a unit off the cigarette lighter, which is more correctly called a power source," Lambie said. "Slap the antenna on the roof and go. It's about the size of the smallest laptop computer bag, excuse me, I mean elegant carry case."
The price tag: About $2,500.