Archive for Monday, March 12, 2001

Global Positioning System finds its way to the dashboard

March 12, 2001


"What are you doing? That was the turnoff!"

My wife pointed to the highway exit she'd taken dozens of times before.

"It'll be shorter if we go this way," I said.

We were driving to a seventh-grade basketball game in a Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood, with three players in the back of my van.

I like shortcuts.

And I was feeling pleased with myself as I handed her the map I had printed from the Internet. The map showed that if we went a little farther down the highway, turned at that exit and then backtracked, we could shave 10 minutes from our trip.

"Just look at the map and tell me where to turn," I told my wife.

The next hour is a little blurry in my memory.

I do recall a detour sign, lots of orange barrels, unfamiliar street names and a growing tension in the car.

"Are we lost?" one of the children asked.

"We are NOT lost. We'll get there soon," I kept saying, refusing to pull over to ask for directions, while I tried to reach the crumpled map on the floor.

A constellation of trackers

That incident and several similar road-trip occurrences made me realize that maybe I might find some everyday use for GPS devices.

The Navstar Global Positioning System is made up of 24 satellites in high-Earth orbits that provide navigational information throughout the world for military and civilian use.

My brother-in-law told us about how the system guided him and his fellow troops in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.

Since then, GPS has become available for civilian use. More than 4 million people worldwide use it for everything from oil exploration to hiking to finding a favorite fishing spot.

Commercial interests use it to help drivers find their way to unfamiliar destinations.

There are also GPS map devices that clip on to Palm and Handspring Visor personal organizers or plug into laptop computers.

Several companies provide handheld or in-dash devices that include interstate and highway maps and display your location on a small screen.

Hertz, the car rental company, uses Magellan's 750M model in its "Never Lost" in-car navigation system. The service provides small directional maps on a dashboard screen and gives voice directions.

Last fall, Mercedes-Benz announced its models would provide dynamic maps using information from other cars that had driven that way previously.

A company official predicted that maps that keep up with construction obstacles on a driver's route could also be available in the near future.

But the carmaker that seems to be steering how GPS will be used for vehicles in the future is General Motors.

GM's OnStar

Introduced as an option for 1997 Cadillacs, the General Motors OnStar system now comes standard on 32 of the 54 GM 2001 models, including the Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe.

The system is also offered on Saab and Lexus models.

OnStar uses a combination of GPS, hands-free wireless cellular technology and a 24-hour service center.

It's pretty easy to use. You just press a button on the dash to automatically call one of two service centers either in Michigan or North Carolina.

The service center advisers use GPS to locate your car and then provide you with directions and other information. The big difference between the GM approach and others is that OnStar interaction is entirely by voice.

Keep your eyes on the road

"The reason there is no screen is they want to make a system where your eyes stay on the road and your hands stay on the steering wheel," said John Laddusaw of Crown Chevrolet-Oldsmobile, 3400 S. Iowa. "You don't want some kind of a system where you're trying to look at a map on a screen while you're driving."

For example, he said, OnStar would be helpful for people taking spring break trips to unfamiliar sites.

"It gives you confidence to take off and just go. And even if you're not very good at reading a map, with OnStar you can get where you're going," Laddusaw said.

Such a "route support" service is only part of the features that OnStar offers drivers, he said. The standard service, provided for one year with a new vehicle, is a safety and security package.

A telecom pipeline

As part of that package, OnStar will call if your airbags deploy to see if you need emergency help.

The service also will automatically unlock your car for you. You just call the service center by phone, give the service adviser a personal identification number and they'll send a signal to unlock your door.

And it can help police track your car if it's stolen. (Mercedes has a similar safety system.)

GM's OnStar premium service, which includes the "route support," also will help you find the nearest gas station and even have someone bring you gasoline if the tank hits empty.

GM has teamed with Verizon to provide hands-free, built-in cell phone service. OnStar will even read you your e-mail or provide sports and stock market updates, Laddusaw said.

Last month, GM announced it would provide for real-time stock trades and financial market data on the system.

GM also predicted it will have 800,000 OnStar subscribers this year, and 4 million by the end of 2003.

The standard service is free for the first year and available for $16.95 a month after that period. The premium plan, which includes the phone service and route support, is an additional $30 a month.

"Route support is a good thing, especially when you're running late and trying to find where to go," Laddusaw said.

Saving face

GM seems to know how to appeal to men. By that I mean it seems to be marketing the safety features of its system rather than pointing out how much it can help you when you're lost.

The real test will be to see how many men will continue to drive around in circles before they let their passengers see them use the "route support" system.

My guess is I'd probably swallow some pride and punch the OnStar system for help

I'd much rather discretely ask a small device in my car for directions than confess failure to a convenience store clerk.

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