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Automotive GPS Navigation Guide
By Shaun Keenan, May. 08, 2009
Autonomous urban driving may still be decades away. Even then “auto-pilots” still won't be foolproof. Just ask the guys at MIT, Cornell or any of the other teams from the last DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Challenge – an annual contest organized by the U.S. military to see if private companies and universities can build a fully-operational unmanned vehicle.

Whether guiding airborne vehicles through zero visibility conditions, monitoring ground-based cargo logistics worldwide, pinpointing vessels far out at sea, or perhaps even helping you discover a new route to your cottage, the ball park or the shopping mall, GPS technology is as much a lifesaver as it is a timesaver.

This expensive rocket science has already made the transition into the consumer marketplace and into various electronics for you, your home and your automobile – no matter what your budget may be.

The Global Positioning Satellite network can calculate the precise latitude and longitude (location), heading (direction of travel) and speed of any GPS-receiving device with considerable accuracy in any weather condition.

Automotive GPS systems can provide voice guidance and detailed turn-by-turn instructions on how to get from one place to another. Software and maps (either stored locally or externally on DVD or HDD) compare your current whereabouts to known map coordinates and overlay this information onto interactive maps that can be used in many ways.

Route guidance is perhaps the most significant benefit of any automotive GPS system. On most systems, it's as easy as inputting your desired destination and then letting it determine the best route from your current location based on some default settings.

The majority of high-end vehicle navigation systems have touchscreen displays that allow users to enter an address, waypoint or destination quite easily. Some, however, require additional software, a computer and an Internet connection before you can head out into undiscovered country.

Many systems allow users to specify their own route preferences based on certain parameters. Instead of going the most direct route possible, for example, you could ask it to plot a more scenic route. Perhaps you want to avoid freeways, toll routes, roads with speed limits below 35 mph and/or vice versa.

Once the system knows your destination, it's usually a matter of seconds before it can calculate the best route based on your specifications. The system will then display the calculated route and keep track of your current position in real-time.

Since routes are usually displayed on two-dimensional maps (some system offer 3D and other views) with or without text, voice guidance is very useful. You don't have to constantly look over at the display and, since commands are usually given ahead of the next maneuver, all that remains is to follow the route and listen for instructions. Don't worry if you miss a turn as most devices can automatically re-calculate a route to get you back on track quickly.

While maps and routing may be the bread and butter of these systems, virtually every automotive GPS unit will have some kind of point-of-interest (POI) database that contains the exact locations of countless places you might like to stop at along the way.

They can also help users reduce their fuel consumption by showing the quickest, most efficient way to get somewhere. Whether it's somewhere new, or a place you've visited many times before, an in-car GPS system can also help avoid traffic congestion, accidents, construction zones as well as give you a heads-up on weather, fuel range, trip timing and more.

There are many benefits to having a GPS navigation system in your vehicle. That said, this technology is a navigation “aid” that's been designed to enhance your driving experience. It is not an automatic pilot system and, just because the navigation is turned on, doesn't mean you can turn off your brain. There's still something to be said about researching and planning your route ahead of time.

Many vehicles come with GPS navigation built right in. Some offer it only as an option while there are others that don't offer it at all. Of course, you can add a GPS system to any vehicle any time you feel like it.

Let's take a look at the types of automotive GPS navigation systems that are currently available.

FACTORY GPS NAVIGATION

These are in-dash GPS navigation systems that come as standard or optional equipment with the purchase of a new vehicle. Most are DVD-ROM based, though we are starting to see more HDD (Hard Disk Drive) based systems to help speed up the time it takes to access the map(s) and the ever-growing amount of data these systems can handle.

In years past, navigation systems were somewhat limited by their CD-ROM drive in that multiple discs were need to cover entire countries. Nowadays, maps for entire continents can fit on a single DVD disc and/or take up a bit of space on HDD. Though these are usually more expensive than portable GPS devices, factory navigation products often have the largest screens, integrate better with other electronics and have been designed for use specifically in vehicles.

Acura and BMW are pioneers of in-vehicle GPS navigation. Today, however, virtually all major automakers offer this technology in their vehicles. Voice guidance, real-time traffic and weather updates continue to be staple features of factory systems. That said, voice recognition and hands-free operation are other features that are starting to become more popular.

AFTERMARKET GPS NAVIGATION

If your new vehicle didn't come with a factory option, or if you have an older late model vehicle you'd like to add GPS navigation to, the aftermarket has an even wider array of products to consider.

While your car dealer will have a very limited selection of products – often just one, sometimes two – many in-car electronics manufacturers have several GPS solutions available. Most of these are in-dash units that, besides being navigational aids, can also do other things like play DVD movies, music (AM/FM/Satellite/CD/AUX/etc.) and more. Pricing is relative to the features you're looking for; however, is usually less than a comparable factory setup. Of course, these products require professional installation, which can add to the price.

Aftermarket in-dash systems integrate well into most vehicle interiors with few or no modifications. Unlike portable devices, all of the wiring and mounting hardware is hidden from view. About the only drawback to these systems is that they are rather permanent, meaning you can't take it back and forth between vehicles. That said, some aftermarket systems can add value to your vehicle.

The Kenwood DNX7120 is a good example of an “All-in-One” aftermarket in-dash system with audio, video and navigation technologies accessible via a seven-inch LCD touchscreen and intuitive user interface. In addition to one-touch access to Garmin navigation technology and maps of the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, this unit and many like it, can be used to gain control over portable music players. This unit even includes two relay control outputs to operate external devices like garage doors, security gates, trunk release and more.

PORTABLE GPS NAVIGATION

A key benefit to portable GPS units is that they can be used in multiple vehicles by any number of users. They don't integrate particularly well into most vehicles (you'll likely have to fiddle around with wires, plugs (12V), suction cups, beanbags and/or other mounting tools), but they are a more affordable way to add GPS navigation to any vehicle. Portable units can be removed to prevent theft; and, are generally much more affordable than the two previous options.

Most portable automotive GPS units come ready to use out of the box with all maps and software preloaded and accessible via an easy-to-use interface. There can be some trade-offs, however, including the relatively small screen size, exposed wiring and mounting limitations, but is usually more at the expense of advanced navigation features.

That said, some higher-end portable units like the Garmin nüvi 1390 or TomTom GO 930 come fully-loaded with features like advanced lane assistance, voice recognition, text-to-speech route guidance, Bluetooth control, hands-free phone integration and more. These particular units also have decent-sized touchscreen color displays and utilize IQ Routes software to help users plot the fastest route based on a database of actual average speeds of travel rather than posted speed limits. The TomTom uses Mapshare to allow users to download user-submitted map updates and corrections while the Garmin goes even further with a new feature called ecoRoute that rates fuel consumption in real-time.

Smaller and less-expensive portable models, such as the Garmin nüvi 200 and Magellan RoadMate 1220, for instance, may not have as much mapping coverage or as many features, but are as easy (or easier) to use than the more expensive units. The Magellen, for example, uses a simple icon-driven menu interface called OneTouch that allows users to navigate by POI (point of interest) categories, personal bookmarks and favorites.

MOBILE PHONES, PDAs AND ADD-ONS

Advances in GPS technology have been happening at a torrid pace since “Selective Availability” ended and the civilian GPS signal strengthened in 2000, when at the flick of a switch, accuracy of non-military devices went from 100 meters to just 20 meters. While the latter could be considered one of the most significant advances to date, a more recent trend is making a strong case to change all that.

More and more, GPS navigation is being used in a growing number of personal communications and computing devices. So, if you don't need or want a dedicated portable GPS or a navigation system for your vehicle, there are alternatives.

Garmin's nüvi series may have started the trend toward full-featured portable Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs), but it's not the only game anymore. Much of the competition, including the TomTom Go and Magellan Maestro 3225, shares the same basic feature set and are as adept as many in-car systems – detailed maps, voice routing, extensive POI database, on-the-fly information – but are more useful in a variety of situations in and out of your vehicle.

Location-based services, subscription services, the availability of different locales and types of maps (satellite imagery, topographic maps, maps of other continents, marine maps – you get it!) and various different-but-specific functions/softwares/applications that extend the usage of any given device will continue to differentiate these products at the consumer level. What you need and how much you're willing to pay is up to you.

Another useful alternative is to get a Personal Data Assistant (PDA) with a built-in GPS receiver and mapping software. The Asus MyPal 639 and Pharos Traveler 535 series PDAs are two such devices that can help navigate day-to-day life on the road with GPS, and stay connected with friends and colleagues with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

It's even possible to turn older PDAs into powerful pocket GPS systems if you've got a bit of know-how, the proper adapters and some decent software. You could go wired with a USB GPS antenna or wireless with a compact Bluetooth GPS receiver. If nothing else, Microsoft Streets and Trips is a pretty good companion for Windows Mobile-supported devices.

Finally, smartphones like the Apple iPhone, Palm Treo 800w, RIM BlackBerry Curve 8130 and Samsung Instinct are just a few of the current examples. With the addition of a location-based service, an application and some maps, you can have a full-featured personal navigator right on your phone. Even some less-glamorous cells like the BlackBerry Pearl and Samsung BlackJack series phones can support GPS navigation. Not very useful in the car, but who knows when a GPS-enabled phone will prove handy?

TWO-WAY GPS NAVIGATION

In addition, a small number of traditional GPS manufacturers are trending toward integrating cellular Wi-Fi technologies into next-gen PNDs to deliver Internet connectivity on demand anywhere, anytime. This type of connection allows retrieval of the most current and relevant information to ensure accurate maps, routing, traffic flow info, searches and various other content instantaneously.

The Dash Express and TeleNav Shotgun are amongst a handful of devices that currently offer this exciting two-way Internet-connected GPS technology. The main benefit to which, obviously, is that the device would nary have to be physically connected to a computer network to receive software and map updates, environmental alerts, and user requested content.

We're already starting to see this in the automobile. BMW has its ConnectedDrive mobile communication platform feature, which integrates the driver, vehicle and environment in a dynamic network that supplies tailored information whenever and wherever its asks for it.

ConnectedDrive brings together the powerful functionalities of BMW's Assist, Online, Tracking, TeleServices and its driver-assistant systems to stay ergonomically connected to any and all relevant information and services.

Cadillac also recently announced the 2009 CTS is available with a built-in Wi-Fi so passengers can surf the Internet.

Many experts believe the automobile will be fully-connected to the Internet by 2020. Some think it will happen much sooner. It's hard to believe all this has come about in the last decade, isn't it? That said, we may be a lot closer to having autopilot for our vehicles than originally thought. Now that's scary!