TECHNOLOGY

Backseat driver

ROSS LAVER June 20 1994
TECHNOLOGY

Backseat driver

ROSS LAVER June 20 1994

TECHNOLOGY

Backseat driver A satellite can tell drivers where to go

Imagine this: you are driving across town, searching vainly for that quaint little Italian restaurant everybody at work is talking about. On a hunch, you turn left at an intersection. Suddenly, a disapproving voice delivers a sharp reprimand: “You should have turned right.” Nothing remarkable about that—almost everyone who has ever sat behind the wheel of a car knows what it is like to be scolded by some know-it-all backseat driver. The difference is that, at some point in the near future, the carping critic may be an electronic gadget that really does know it all—thanks to a computer chip, a digital map database and a $14-billion fleet of satellites orbiting 11,000 miles above the earth.

Leaving aside the question of whether it is preferable to be hectored by a machine or by one’s spouse, such systems are likely to become commonplace by the end of the decade. Already, several prototype versions have been tested in rental-car fleets in the United States. General Motors Corp. of Detroit (GM), one of the leaders in the development of high-tech automotive navigation equipment, plans to begin marketing its system later this year in California and New York; company officials say that it should be available in Canada by 1996. A simpler form of navigation technology, which is designed to be retrofitted in cars with audio compact-disc players, is scheduled to go on sale in selected cities across the United States this summer for about $700.

The key to many of the new in-car navigation aids is the global positioning system (GPS), a technology made famous by the U.S. military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Using hand-held receivers that took readings from a network of satellites, soldiers in the desert could instantly pinpoint their location, altitude, speed and bearing. More recently, companies such as Sony and Motorola have produced walkie-talkie-sized GPS receivers for use by hikers, boaters and others who want to keep track of their exact positions. Well over 100,000 such units have been sold, priced typically at more than $1,500. Similar GPS units are being developed to enable aerial crop sprayers to spread fertilizers more precisely, to allow dispatchers to keep track of a fleet of delivery trucks, and to help pilots avoid midair crashes.

The concept behind the GPS system is simple. The U.S. defence department has placed in orbit a total of 24 satellites, including three spares; from anywhere on Earth, it is possible to pick up signals from at least four of them. Each satellite continuously broadcasts its position and exactly what time it is, based

on information supplied by four highly accurate on-board atomic clocks. Receivers on the ground compare that information with the time indicated by their own atomic clocks. The difference between the two time signals tells the unit how far it is from that satellite. By locking on to four satellites simultaneously, the receiver can calculate its longitude, latitude and altitude, to within about 16 m.

In the automotive industry, the rush is now on to combine GPS receivers with portable computers and digitized road atlases, producing a compact navigation unit that can be installed in car dashboards. GM’s system enables a driver to enter details of his desired destination—either the exact address, the closest intersection or a nearby landmark—using a cursor and a small display screen. The computer then works out the most efficient route, guiding the driver with bold color graphics and voice prompts that indicate each approaching turn. If a turn is missed, or cannot be taken because of road construction work or traffic congestion, the system can reroute the journey at the touch of a key.

At the moment, two major obstacles stand in the way of the widespread introduction of in-car navigation systems. One is cost: GM’s unit will sell for about $2,800, although company officials say the price could eventually drop to a quarter of that. The other problem is the availability of computerized mapping data. For strategic purposes, the U.S. military has produced detailed building-by-building digital maps of most large American cities, and is making that information available for civilian use. But in Canada, the task has been left to private industry. “Right now, we’re just waiting for the infrastructure to be in place,” says John Healy, manager of domestic product engineering for General Motors of Canada Ltd. in Oshawa, Ont. He adds that digital maps for the Toronto area should be available by 1995 or 1996, with other areas of the country to follow. ‘We think that if the price is attractive—about the same as a high-end car stereo—this kind of system could eventually find its way into 15 or 20 per cent of the vehicles on the road.”

ROSS LAVER

But already, there is competition from a cheaper ($700), less sophisticated navigation system that does not use GPS. Known as Audio-Nav, the system consists of a car’s CD player, a microphone mounted near the driver and a computer processor about the size of a paperback book. The driver inserts a navigation disc into the CD player, activates the controller with the verbal command "Wake up,” and then spells out his current location and destination (a voice-recognition system adjusts for a wide range of regional accents). A CD voice then announces the distance and estimated time for the trip, and guides the driver with verbal commands at each turning point. We think this does almost everything that GPS does, at a much lower cost,” says Abe Fuks, manager of sales and marketing for Amerigon Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., the company that developed AudioNav. Whether they opt for that system or one of the satellite-sensing versions, motorists in the future are going to have to get used to being told where to go.