Backseat Driver On The Dash

Today's computerized navigation systems have only one major flaw: Cost

All the talk about computer navigation systems for cars had me curious. So I jumped at a recent chance to test one in a luxurious 1999 Acura 3.2TL.

It didn't get off to an auspicious start: After the car was delivered to a downtown Washington (D.C.) parking garage, I punched in my suburban Maryland address using the touch-sensitive screen in the dash and asked it to tell me how to get home. After a couple of minutes, the program came up with a route that would have turned my 11-mile commute into an ugly 24-mile trek through Northern Virginia. It was a misleading introduction to auto navigation, a useful, if still rather pricey, tool.

Turns out that one of the few weaknesses of this built-in navigation system, a $2,000 option in the $28,000 Acura, is an inordinate fondness for freeways. Once I instructed it to minimize the use of freeways, it plotted a short, direct route.

The system is made for Acura by Alpine Electronics, which also puts out a version for installation in existing cars at a suggested retail price of around $2,100. Similar products include Magellan Driver Information Systems' PathMaster, a retail version of the NeverLost system used in some Hertz rental cars, and Philips Electronics' CARiN.

The most striking thing about the Acura system is its dead-on accuracy. Using a global-positioning system keyed to satellites and combined with gyroscopic motion sensors, the car always knew its position within, at worst, half a city block. This is combined with a map database from Navigation Technologies that knows about details as small as right-turn cutouts at intersections.

When driving, the five-inch LCD display, which is bright enough to be seen even in strong sunlight, offers a choice between a map view, which can zoom from block-level detail to a city overview, and a diagram of driving instructions. A synthesized female voice warns you of turns, usually with ample time to maneuver safely. The display and controls are laid out to be informative without being distracting.

NavTech's database divides the U.S. into nine regions. You get one with the unit, and additional ones cost $150. Major metropolitan areas have block-by-block detail for all streets. Rural areas and smaller cities offer only major roads. The routes for the Washington area were generally good, though sometimes with odd detours. If I deviated from the plotted route, it revised the route in a minute or so.

A FEW FIXES. There are a few features that could be better. An estimate of the time remaining to a destination was useless. It would assume speeds of 30 mph on surface roads even when I was stuck dead in traffic. Since the system knows your actual speed, it should use that information--or the company should drop the feature. Another potential improvement: integrating real-time radio traffic reports, now used by commercial delivery services such as United Parcel Service, to route around jams.

The only really serious flaw I found is the cost. The price, whether as an option in a few luxury models or as an aftermarket add-on, is way too steep for most consumers.

Of course, it wasn't long ago that auto CD players--and even antilock brakes--were luxury options, too. With prices likely to slide down the technology cost curve quickly, it's not hard to imagine the day when in-car navigation systems become standard features.

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