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Instructions from Outer Space: GPS Car Navigation

Have you ever found yourself driving at high speed or in heavy traffic in an unfamiliar area while the person in the passenger seat frantically attempts to read the map and tell you where to turn next? If you’re like me, it’s stressful. And if you’re anything like Tonya, trying to figure out the current location on a map and give coherent directions, all while the car is moving is equally as stressful, plus a bit nausea-inducing.

Our recent trip to New Mexico was made even more enjoyable by our decision to spring for the extra $10 per day to rent a GPS-enabled (global positioning system) cell phone from Alamo that spoke directions for each upcoming turn. It was brilliant, despite some notable design flaws. We’re not gadget freaks, but we’ve already decided to look into buying a similar device for the next time we have to do any significant driving in unknown parts.

Driving by Wireless — Alamo wasn’t forthcoming about what the device actually was and how it worked, so my apologies in advance if my deduction and speculation prove somewhat incorrect. From what I could tell, the GPS device itself was a Motorola i58sr cell phone with Nextel service; the phone had a relatively small black & white screen, and Alamo provided a suction cup mount so it could attach to the windshield.

When turned on, the phone ran some kind of specialized Java application that asked for your permission (presumably because you could have been tracked through the device) and then dumped you into a predictably lousy interface for searching for an attraction or entering an address. Once you entered the address, the phone used Nextel’s data network to download driving directions from your current location, determined by the GPS, and then both read them out loud to you via its speakerphone and displayed the next turn on the screen, with running countdowns of how far until your next turn and until you reached the eventual destination. It always started talking about half a mile away, and it repeated itself as you got closer, but never so much that it was annoying. As you came up on a turn, a progress bar showed you how many meters until the turn; that was great in situations where there were two turns quite close together.

Although the interface was poor, and it took us longer to figure out than ideal (remember, we were driving; it’s not like you have time to sit down with the thing beforehand, and Alamo didn’t include any instructions at all), we quickly became addicted to the driving instructions. With one exception – where the GPS phone would have had us get off an arterial, cross a road, and get right back on – the instructions were extremely accurate. And interestingly, a second pass through the area where it gave the foolish instructions did not repeat them; it’s conceivable that we were in a different lane and thus triggered different instructions. If you missed a turn (the mistake was the only direction we ignored), it detects that you’re not on course and quickly downloads new directions to reroute you.

More problematic, particularly in the rural parts of New Mexico, was that you had to enter a full address. We were staying with fellow authors Robin Williams and John Tollett for a few nights, and although we had directions to their house, and thus had the final road name, we didn’t have their street address handy. We were able to fool the GPS phone into giving us directions anyway by guessing that the house number was 1 instead of 2745 or something, and we were lucky, since in some cities, that difference could have put us entirely across town. A bed and breakfast we stayed at in Chimayo had only a P.O. box for an address, and the device’s database had never heard of County Road 0100, so it wasn’t much help there.

Although Tonya found a GPS menu in the phone’s interface somewhere, we never managed to see if it would give us a map view of the area (and my reading of the phone’s user’s guide afterwards would seem to indicate not). It would have been helpful to be able to point at a spot in the map and say "Go there!" It would also have been useful on at least one occasion to see a map view and which direction we were traveling; luckily my normal handheld GPS device showed us that we were headed in entirely the wrong direction. That was before we’d quite realized how helpful the GPS phone would be, and we hadn’t planned on using it that trip, since our final destination in Los Alamos didn’t have an address (it was probably classified information, though we were again able to fool the phone into taking a random address on the final street). According to the user’s guide, the phone can communicate with a computer to work with mapping software, though it was unclear if it would really work on the Mac or not.

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As you might expect, the reliance on Nextel’s data network for instructions proved problematic in several locations, since Nextel’s coverage where we were in Taos and Santa Fe was poor to non-existent. We were fine getting to those locations, since the phone downloaded all the instructions it needed initially, but it couldn’t access any new instructions until we were within range of a Nextel tower again.

Planning for the Next Trip — Such voice-enabled GPS devices are not new; I’ve been hearing people talk about them for years. But they’re pricey ($400 to $1,000), and particularly in Ithaca, where we know the roads well, I couldn’t justify the expense of such a device. But this GPS phone and associated service, thoroughly mediocre though it may have been, fell squarely into the category of gadgets that improved our life. Particularly when I’m under time pressure to arrive somewhere, I’m not one of those people who is relaxed about potentially getting lost. I hate not knowing where I am, and I absolutely can’t stand the feeling that I’m going to be late because I took a wrong turn somewhere. And in turn, Tonya doesn’t enjoy reading maps and feeding me navigation instructions while we’re driving. So the clearly enunciated directions both increased my peace of mind while driving and Tonya’s relaxation level.

I’ve started to look into other devices that might work better than the Motorola GPS phone; it’s not acceptable to be without directions just because you can’t get cell service. It also sounds from this PC World article as though it would be fairly expensive: the cost of a Nextel data plan plus $11 per month for the GPS service.

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There are a number of dedicated GPS devices that promise features well beyond what the GPS phone provided, such as multiple map views, route choices if you don’t want to take freeways (or if you want to take only freeways), and more. Voice instructions are key, since paying attention to gadget interfaces in the car is dangerous. A few of the devices I’ve found and plan to look into further include:

If you’ve used one of these devices, or another voice-enabled GPS system for providing navigation, let us know on TidBITS Talk <[email protected]> what you think.

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