New technology cuts impressive dash

It’s already hard to remember what life was like before sat-nav came along.

London – It’s already hard to remember what life was like before sat-nav came along. Dog-eared atlases in every car glovebox. Gormless strangers shrugging their shoulders as you asked for directions. Illegible sketch maps that were supposed to get you to a friend’s party but didn’t, and map-reading arguments that tested the strongest marriages. It’s so much easier now – just punch in an address and away you go. That’s it.

It’s not all good news, of course. You don’t have to be a geography teacher to worry that if we stop looking at maps, we’ll lose our sense of place. then there are those sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic “sat-nav made me do it” disaster stories. Drivers of articulated lorries who ended up wedging their 44-tonners between ancient stone walls on narrow roads in pretty villages. Dim motorists who dutifully drove their cars into rivers because they didn’t have the gumption to take the instructions with a pinch of salt. If you’re wondering, women are more likely to obey sat-nav commands without question than men, according to a survey published recently by Swinton Insurance – although it’s not clear whether that makes them more susceptible to extreme “prat-nav” error.

Overall, though, sat-nav has been an overwhelming plus for drivers – and it’s constantly been getting better. as recently as 2005, car manufacturers such as BMW were still charging more than £1,000 (about R11 000) for factory-fitted units that didn’t even have a map display, but relied instead on arrow prompts and voice instructions.

Owners of expensive cars sometimes found they had to make a choice between using their sat-navs or listening to their favourite music, because their dash-mounted DVD drives could handle either a music CD or a disc containing navigation data, but not both at the same time. some of the clunkier built-in systems were rapidly swept away as sat-nav specialists such as TomTom, Garmin and Navman piled in with devices that cost a fraction of the price, for those who don’t mind sucker marks sullying their windscreens and cables cluttering dashboards.

There turned out to be rather a lot of those, so for a few years, sat-navs sold in huge numbers as every feature imaginable was added in order to fuel demand. Bluetooth and the ability to play MP3 files, live updates of traffic conditions and “points of interest” databases allowing you to find, say, your nearest supermarket or restaurant, were just a few examples. then market saturation and a weakening economy finally brought an end to the party. In the first quarter of 2009, TomTom sold 29 percent fewer units than it had in the first three months of 2008, a stunning reversal when set against the strong growth that had preceded it.

But it wasn’t just the market that turned against the specialised sat-nav makers – it was technology as well. It’s no coincidence that sat-nav burst onto the scene at about the same time as affordable mobile phones and the web. All were helped by common factors such as the advent of cheap computing power and the opening up to the civilian market of technology that had previously been the preserve of the US military. for several years, computers, sat-navs and mobiles lived separate lives – but then things started to change. first the dividing line between mobiles and internet-based computing blurred with smart-phones. then the boundaries between sat-navs and the rest started to crumble, a development that posed a challenge for the navigation companies.

Mobile handsets already contained a lot of computing power and location technology, so navigation aids were an obvious add-on. Take the mobile phone makers’ huge economies of scale and experience of designing desirable consumer electronics products as well, and you have a potent threat to TomTom and the rest. The navigation companies have tried to blunt that threat by themselves offering to provide the relevant technology on mobile handsets. Go to Apple’s App Store and you can download iPhone apps from Garmin, TomTom or Navigon providing UK coverage for forty or fifty pounds, prices that compare very favourably with even the cheapest standalone sat-navs. The bigger threat though, is from cheaper or free alternatives such as Google Maps Navigation for Android-based devices – although the cost of data downloads for phone-based navigation is a factor in this area, too.

That all leaves customers with a wide of choice of excellent navigation options – built-in systems, standalone after-market devices and phone-based solutions – all at much lower prices than the less capable equivalents of a few years ago. and we’re not finished yet; car manufacturers and sat-nav makers are finally getting together to combine the best features of easy-to-use but expensive and inflexible built-in sat navs, and the cheap, feature-rich but untidy, cable-trailing after-market units. The solution lies in well-designed dash-top brackets that allow drivers to use standard units without windscreen suckers and unsightly cables – Seat and Renault have led the way here. Mercedes has gone a step further by providing for Becker Traffic Pro sat-navs, which are considerably cheaper than the company’s own full-blown in-built systems, to use its’ cars’ large in-dash displays to show navigation maps.

But good as today’s systems are, there’s the prospect of something very much better. what if the sat-nav of the future, instead of directing you from A to B, could tell you everything about the buildings and natural landmarks you see along the way, identify the wild flowers on the roadside verges, or recommend the best restaurant you will pass between mid-day and 2pm, so that you know where to stop for lunch? If the technology that’s already starting to go into our cars – location technology, computing power, internet access and so on – can be combined in a sensible way, it’s all within our grasp. – The Independent

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