GPS devices point in the right direction

First, we said farewell to our phonograph players and records. Next we dumped our dictionaries. Then we recycled our Rolodexes and tossed our table telephones. Bulky televisions and computer monitors went next.

Now it’s time to take the machete to the maps in our cars and trucks. No wonder the landfills are overflowing.

Obsolete paper maps, another link with our past, are being replaced by Global Positioning Systems, also known as GPS devices. Think of them as interactive maps. Anyone who has hailed a cab recently has probably seen them at work on the cab’s dashboard. Most rental cars now come with GPS devices.

“Turn right” (or whatever), says the sultry voice issuing directions. The driver obeys and the taxi miraculously reaches its destination.

New cars are equipped with either the touch-screen or OnStar technology, which makes do without a screen.

Tracking the trucks
Rural builders with fleets of vehicles are discovering that portable GPS devices enable them to track the positions of their vehicles, whether they are moving and how fast. Text messages provide verbal communication between driver and office. Since the device is portable, a builder need not buy one for each vehicle, only enough to equip the ones that are likely to be rolling at the same time.

Inside the truck, the driver can get information about traffic, weather and services such as which filling station has the cheapest gasoline.

Prices keep dropping and features and ease of use keep improving. Garmin, the industry leader with more than 50 percent share of market, sells GPS devices in a range of $200 to $1,000, although commercial models are more likely to start at $500. The higher prices buy larger screens, up to about the size of a checkbook, plus more features and services. Upper-end models combine computer-like capabilities with cell phones.

A newer feature is voice recognition, enabling the driver to speak commands and requests without a headset or without being distracted by having to touch the screen or hold a handset.

Looking for the nearest Starbucks? Wondering how close are the approaching rainshowers? Just ask GPS.

Garmin’s got it

Garmin’s best selling GPS line for commercial applications is the Nuvi series. It ranges from $500 to $800.

When the weekend comes and the boss wants to get out on the boat, he can flip a switch on the GPS device and its application changes from road transportation to marine transportation.

GPS technology has been available to the public since the 1980s but it took off about 2003. Garmin’s unit sales, for example, almost doubled in 2006 from the previous year and its revenues hit $2 billion for the most recent nine-month reporting period. Falling prices boosted unit sales, but the real growth spurt began when the technology became easier to use and tracking information began to be displayed in more understandable form than longitude and latitude coordinates.

Be aware that in addition to the initial cost, there might be a monthly fee plus an annual fee for updating the maps. You might be able to forgo the updates if you don’t insist on the device being more current than the typical paper map in the typical car.

Across the market

One mark of the success of GPS is the development of a third-party market to extend basic capabilities. Beacon Wireless, for example, specializes in communication between trucks and dispatcher. Its product, Fleetmaster Zoom, is cell-phone based and costs $600. “A lot of GPS devices do straight tracking,” says David Lash, company president. “We add value by reducing travel costs and reaction time in the field through direct, two-way voice, data and text communication.”

Another good sign was when the fleet companies started offering GPS in response to customer demand. For example, Paccar Leasing Co., which leases trucks, is touting a new GPS technology it calls PacTrac Blu.

A good way to try out the technology might be to rent a car with a GPS device or take a test drive at a car dealer. This is a good time to consider buying because the rate of innovation is beginning to moderate, meaning that today’s product is unlikely to be obsolete tomorrow.

Defense Department benefit

GPS technology was developed for the U.S. Department of Defense as a way to determine exact locations of nuclear submarines. The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978. Today, 25 satellites orbit the earth. Positions on earth are determine by triangulation from three of the satellites to an accuracy of about three to 15 meters, depending on the age of the unit. Before 2000, the Defense Department intentionally limited the accuracy available to the public so as not to benefit military adversaries.

For more on commercial GPS devices, check www8.garmin.com/solutions/commercial/mrmsolutions.jsp. Garmin offers several levels of detail on GPS history and technology at www8.garmin.com/aboutGPS/manual.html.

With global positioning, you’ll never again have to worry about getting lost.

Oliver Witte teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University. Contact him at owitte@siu.edu.

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