What's New With GPS Units?

An overview on the newest in guidance systems.
By Brian Alexander
Simple fact: People don’t like being lost. Sure, maps have always been there to minimize embarrassing “How do I get to the interchange?” moments, but even the most scrupulous navigators have, at some point, found themselves in the precarious and unenviable position of being utterly, desperately, hopelessly off course. Luckily, it’s much harder to lose your bearings in the modern world thanks to the invention of the satellite navigation unit.

Not all that long ago, the simple notion of a computerized map with the ability to plot a course from point A to point B was a technological novelty in its own right, more than enough to move GPS navigation units off store shelves and into consumer’s cars. As we all know, however, times change. Just as a 14.4k modem and 50 MHz processor was once sufficient for a ‘cutting edge’ web experience, a basic point-to-point GPS unit is no longer sufficient for the needs of most consumers.

Today, every major auto manufacturer offers their own built-in GPS systems and a plethora of third-party aftermarket systems are available as well. Many different technologies are used – some in-car systems utilize DVDs which carry navigation data and can be replaced if the car is moved to another continental region or if navigation data is updated, while others use flash memory storage or are hard-wired with region-specific navigational software.

With competition on the rise, GPS manufacturers are forced to come up with features to maintain appeal to the modern consumer. In the last few years, navigation units have added searchable destination databases, which show points of interest such as restaurants, ATMs, gas stations and hotels in the vicinity, and partnerships with ratings organizations such as Zagat and AAA are becoming increasingly common.

“Zagat ratings can be searched on our navigation system, which will then point you to a restaurant of your choosing. With Bluetooth integration, you can even use your navigation unit to call the selected restaurant,” says Acura Public Relations Spokesperson Jessica Fini.

Recent advances in satellite communications technology (thanks in part to satellite radio networks), means a strong emphasis is currently being put on getting real-time information into navigation systems. Real-time traffic has been the most obvious push in the area of “instant information,” along with road condition updates and accident warnings. Acura was the first automaker to introduce the functionality in North America with the 2005 Acura RL, followed by BMW, Lexus and Chrysler.

The real-time innovation hasn’t stopped with traffic and road conditions though. Now real-time weather updates are possible, a feature Acura has put into the 2009 TSX.

“For 2009 we are integrating real-time weather, which can provide pinpoint conditions and temperatures. It can even route you around a storm in your path if need be,” explains Fini, who continues by explaining the thought process behind new navigation features, “We don’t want to add features just to add them, it’s all about helping the driver.”

In the future, expect systems to relay information on the number of free spaces in nearby parking structures or, in the event of gridlock, give directions to public transportation along with line routes and ticket information. Garmin has recently taken a step in this direction, implementing the ability to display fuel prices in the area.

If you’re thinking, “Why not put that nice, bright LCD screen to use when I don’t need the satnav,” automakers are already one step ahead of you. Some cars, like the 2008 Mercedes Benz S-Class, can use their LCD screens to tune into TV stations or play DVDs.

Navigation systems may even help you get your car back someday too – some manufacturers currently have vehicle location services capable of finding a stolen car.

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