By Jim Kerr

I have driven coast to coast several times across Canada and the United States and one thing I can guarantee – sooner or later I will get lost. After stopping and digging through my maps, checking the location of the sun, and usually asking a local resident, I am back on my way again. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost. You can see a lot of interesting sights, but it also takes a lot of time. For the traveller who has to get there quickly or just doesn’t want to waste time, there is a better solution: a navigation system.

Built-in navigation systems are available on many vehicles. There are other options, such as systems that install in a laptop and connect to a Global Positioning Sensor (GPS) to show directions on screen, or hand-held portable GPS units that will even show the vehicle speed as you drive, but so far none offer the ease of use while driving of a built-in unit. By integrating the Navigation system into the vehicle electronics, voice directions can tell you when to turn so you don’t have to look at the on-screen map. Other advantages include integrating radio, CD and DVD players into the one Navigation unit so it becomes the focal point of the vehicle’s dashboard. When the Navigation system is notifying you of a turn, it can sound chimes and reduce audio volume so that you are attentive and can hear the instructions.

Navigation systems are also adding voice recognition to their programming. This enables the driver to select many options as they drive without taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road. Some are so sophisticated that you can tell it to tune to a different radio station, increase the volume, select a CD track or even tell it to direct you to a new destination – in English, French or Spanish! The newer the system, the more features they include.

POI – Point of Interest – icons can be turned on on the map display, showing you local gas stations, restaurants, sports venues and even hospitals and police stations. All the systems I have used have enabled me to select which POI I want to display, so the screen doesn’t need to display all of them at once. Move the selector over the POI and you can quickly set it as your new destination.

Just as there are many auto manufacturers, there are many Navigation system manufacturers. Systems found in vehicles sold in North America may be built by Panasonic, Alpine, Denso, Kenwood, Delphi, Xanavi, Harman/Becker, Seimans, Visteon, Blaupunkt or Aisin. That’s a long list and each have their own characteristics, but all depend on similar inputs to work. They need a GPS signal, vehicle speed signal and a map database. They are generally priced in the $1,500-$4,000 range, which is usually more expensive than aftermarket portable units.

The GPS signal comes from overhead satellites in synchronous orbit and is received by a special GPS antenna on the vehicle. This antenna must have a view of the sky unobstructed by metal or tall buildings to receive the signal. By triangulating the signal from three different satellites, the Navigation computer can pinpoint the exact location of your vehicle, within about 30 feet. The vehicle speed signal complements the satellite signal, so that the Nav system can update the map when the vehicle is travelling in areas where it can’t pick up satellite signals, such as in underground parking or a tunnel. Finally, the system is only as good as the map data entered into the unit.

There are a few companies supplying map data for Navigation systems. Two of the big ones are Tele Atlas and Navteq. They produce digital maps for all types of systems, including cell phones, portable GPS units and Navigation systems. Tele Atlas is based in Europe and has coverage in more than 200 countries and maps more than 20 million kilometres of road and 845 million addresses. Navteq has their global headquarters in Illinois and claim coverage on six continents. Both have offices around the world – and their maps are continually updated. I have trouble keeping even my bank book up to date!

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