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Feature Story

EDUCATION: SATELLITE TRACKING IN CARS

by Bob Hagin

October 11, 1996

I hate to admit it, but I get lost if I'm driving on out-of-the-way streets in my own home town. I have trouble figuring which way is North and I'm sometimes hard pressed to differentiate my left from my right, until I look at my watch. It's always on my left wrist.

When I have to travel to a distant city (even one that I've been to many times) I always photocopy a page from a detailed map, use a yellow Hi-liter to lay out a specific route, and then follow it exactly.

In view of my directional disorder, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of two new cars for our test team to evaluate. They were the Acura 3.5RL and the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight. The Olds was equipped with that company's Guidestar navigational system while the Acura carried Honda's version, the Acura Navigational System. The Olds press kit had proclaimed that "Getting lost is a thing of the past.." and that really appealed to me. At least I wouldn't get lost as long as I was driving that Eighty Eight or the 3.5RL.

The operation of the a mobile direction system is like something out of an old Star Wars movie: a network of 24 satellites circle the Earth at an altitude of about 11,000 miles and a half-dozen of them are almost always above the horizon at all times. Each of them contains an atomic clock (for accuracy) and a radio transmitter that is constantly broadcasting that particular satellite's position. A receivers in the car picks up the signals from three and sometimes four of the satellites and through triangulation, determines its own position. An onboard computer read this information, compares it to a previously installed read-only memory disc or cartridge and displays the position of the vehicle on a detailed map that appears on a small electronic screen by the driver. The driver puts in the desired destination of the trip by address, intersection, and sometimes even by the proper name of a restaurant, museum, school, etc. As the trip progresses, the map changes, showing the then-current location of the car on the screen.

When the driver approaches an intersection or a highway on-ramp, an authoritative voice says something like "Turn right at the next crossroad" or whatever instructions are needed to stay on course. Some of my journalistic colleagues resented this as an intrusion but personally, I thought it was great - but then I'm the kind who doesn't get offended at a bit of backseat driving.

If the driver takes a wrong turn, overshoots an intersection or in some other way goes off course, the computer recalculates the car's location and direction and immediate starts over again, aiming for the predetermined destination.

As yet, neither system will show every street in every town in the country. Both are area-specific although the areas are pretty big. In my own area, both Olds and Acura offer programs that cover the entire state of California and those programs include the city of Las Vegas which was in Nevada last time I checked. Both systems have updates available. Oldsmobile has its Guidestar owners deal directly with the software company that puts the program together while Acura owners will be able to drop by their local dealership and buy an updated and localized CD.

But it isn't necessary to buy a new Oldsmobile or Acura to enjoy knowing where you are, where you're going and what is the shortest, quickest route to take. Sony, the Japanese electronics giant, offers an aftermarket system to bolt into your present vehicle. Sony's NVX-F160 system just took on a new software package that provides coverage of the entire continental US as well as detailed coverage of 32 major cities on one disc. It also offers a library of CD-ROM databases that you can plunk into its player to get directions to and information about RV campgrounds, race tracks, zoos and assorted other tourist attractions. At a bit under $3000, you'd have to be a pretty serious RVer to make it worth while, but it might be worth the peace-of-mind that goes with never again having to say "Honey, we're lost!".

I wasn't able to try the Sony system (no demo units available) but I did drive an Oldsmobile Ninety Eight and an Acura 3.5RL that carried directional systems. While they were both quite accurate, they would both sometimes take me on a very precise but "scenic" route (short cuts and off-ramps that are very close together confused the programs), but I always made it home while pretending that I was in strange territory.

I heartily recommend any and all dash-mounted navigational systems for anyone who travels in strange areas, if only for two basic and personal reasons: they eliminate the frustration of trying to read the small print on a strange street map and you won't have to face the embarrassment of trying to refold the map correctly.