by Jim Kerr

Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to twice traverse large parts of Canada supported by four wheels. Electronic technology played a big part in each of these journeys.

The first adventure accomplished a “Twice across Canada in 12 days” introduction tour of Land Rover’s new Freelander. World of Wheels auto magazine and Land Rover sponsored the tour from Toronto to Halifax to Vancouver and finally back to Toronto. I only travelled one day with the group, but it took us 1300 kilometres from Winnipeg to Calgary.

The second adventure was more of a competition. Three teams of twenty journalists are driving Pontiac’s new Vibe from Halifax to Vancouver in a countrywide scavenger hunt. Instead of collecting articles, the journalists are taking pictures of many different things and posting them on the Vibe website at www.drivethevibe.com. Check it out to catch the Vibe and the journalists as they finish the tour in Vancouver

Now for the technology. I call it “keeping in touch” because there was an abundance of technologies available to do just that: laptop computers with mobile phone Internet connections, cell phones, satellite phones, walki- talkies, digital cameras, the latest in wireless personal communications – the Blackberry, and just for good measure, a dashboard navigation system. If you love to drive, it is possible to also always stay in touch.

The Freelander adventure across the Canadian Prairies was my first experience with satellite phones. Although the two Freelanders and the support vehicle were all equipped with cell phones, there were many places that no connections could be made. Satellite phone contact was always available, but there were a couple hitches. First of all, the country code had to be dialed every time a number was called. This isn’t difficult, just unexpected. Then there is the position of the antenna. The satellite handheld phone has an extendible antenna and even with a glass sunroof, the contact was not always perfect. Stopping the Freelander and stepping outside so the metal roof didn’t interfere with transmissions enabled good connections at any time.

Surprisingly, the most useful technology we carried were the walki-talkies. With a range of about three kilometres, these handheld radios enabled us to keep in touch with the other vehicles. Friendly conversation was punctuated with the occasional warning about slow moving equipment, poor road conditions, and where to stop for coffee. If I were planning a trip that involved two or more vehicles, I would put walki-talkies at the top of my equipment list.

Travelling in the Vibe gave me a whole new appreciation for mobile technology. Part of the journey included sending written descriptions and photos of sights across Canada, as we motored down the road. The Blackberry PDA is a small personal organizer that can communicate digitally over the airwaves. A quiet warble tone let us know when someone was contacting us, and a very small keyboard built into the Blackberry enabled me to reply. Two thumbs worked best on the keyboard, and I was surprized at how easy it was to use. The only disadvantage of the Blackberry is that it used only digital signals, so there was very limited contact available outside major cities. The good part of it is that as soon as you come back into range, your messages are waiting for you.

A digital camera, a laptop to process the pictures, and a cell phone connection to the Internet are a wonderful way to keep in touch. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when trying to describe the beauty of Canada, this is certainly true. The camera we used was a Kodak DX3900, and this has to be the fastest and easiest camera to download to a computer that I have ever used. A 110 volt electrical outlet in the Vibe enabled us to keep both the camera and laptop batteries fully
charged.

Plug and play technology in the laptop enabled us to simply connect the phone with a special cable and the computer would launch the program. All I had to do was click on “connect”. Typing in a few comments, attach a picture, and hit send allowed viewers across the country to monitor our progress at the Drivethevibe website. It would have been just as easy to send it to a personal e-mail account. Nothing says “hi” better than a smiling face with scenery in the background.

Although transmitting with the cell phone was easy, it wasn’t perfect by any means. While driving, the cell phones could switch from tower to tower and the transmission would be interrupted. It had to be started over again. Because the cell phones were digital, there were large areas of the country where no contact could be made. That’s where the satellite phone comes in, but even this phone was best if used outside the vehicle.

Finally, the onboard navigation system didn’t help keep one in touch, but it was useful sometimes to tell others where you where located. It took a little playing to get used to the GPS based system and set it up. One team found themselves positioned in the middle of Lake Superior! Set it up correctly and it is useful near major centres. Unfortunately, there are large parts of Canada that are not digitally mapped, so don’t throw the paper maps away yet.

Technology is making it easier to keep in touch all the time. It is a great safety feature and I enjoyed using the technology, but sometimes I feel it is still better to turn it all off and just enjoy the drive.

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