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Auto Navigation Unit Is on the Right Track

August 07, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

"Maggie" came between my wife and me as we piloted our minivan on a 4,800-mile round trip between California and Missouri. Maggie's actual, more technical name is Magellan 750 M, a new portable global position system, or GPS, receiver available in September for about $2,500.

We gave it a woman's name because the 750 M dispenses driving directions in a pleasant female voice. By selecting an option on the configuration menu, though, it could just as easily speak in a male voice--and in either English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese or Dutch. In addition to voice prompts, the unit displays maps and step-by-step routing information on a 2-by-2 1/2-inch color screen.

Like other automobile GPS receivers, the Magellan 750 M tells you precisely where you are and coordinates your position with its nationwide library of street maps. It knows your location because it's receiving data from government-owned satellites originally launched for military use. Until last May, the government deliberately degraded GPS signals to thwart terrorists and other bad guys who might have used them to deliver weapons, but they are now accurate to within about 30 feet.

The 750 M is a portable version of Magellan's 750 Nav GPS, which has been on the market for several months. The portable version resides in an 11-by-13-by-3-inch briefcase placed under or behind one of the front seats or, on some cars, between the seats.

At $2,500, the price is comparable to those of other auto navigation systems, but for most drivers it's still an unaffordable luxury or an expensive toy. Yet, I can see how it would be cost-effective for real estate agents, salespeople or others who must frequently find their way around unfamiliar neighborhoods. And because it's portable, it can be a lifesaver for road warriors who rent cars in unfamiliar cities.

It can be moved easily from car to car and carried on a plane for use in a rental. It draws power from the car's cigarette lighter and its magnetically mounted antenna attaches to the outside. It took me less than 10 minutes to install it in the van and about the same amount of time to move it to my sedan once we got home from our vacation. The company also sells a $200 kit that allows you to mount the unit securely in a vehicle yet still be able to move it to another car. Although the 750 M is portable, it's strictly for use in vehicles. Magellan Corp.--along with Garmin International and other companies--also makes hand-held portable units that start at $150.

My first test of the unit came as I was leaving the San Fernando Valley heading east toward Needles, near the Arizona border. I know Los Angeles freeways pretty well, but when I programmed the unit to get me there in the shortest time, it managed to plot a route that might not have occurred to me. We avoided downtown and got to the open road in record time. The system knows nothing about current traffic conditions but is programmed with information about roads--including speed limits, stop signs and traffic lights--that helps it plot the fastest theoretical route.

In addition to maps and driving directions, the unit tracks mileage to your destination and estimates time of arrival. Again, though, the arrival times were wrong more often than not.

On the third day of our trip, about an hour past Amarillo, Texas, we decided to check out historic Route 66, so I configured the system for "the least use of freeways" and it rerouted us right through the center of McLean, Texas, where we visited a very cool vintage Philips 66 gas station. When I reconfigured it for "shortest time," the 750 M plotted a course directly across a small lake, which, unfortunately, had no bridge. I turned the car around and selected the reroute option, and Magellan came up with an option that got us to the freeway.

Like other technologies, GPS receivers will ultimately become more affordable, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them as standard equipment or low-cost options in many cars. That's mostly a good thing, but I do have a couple of worries. First, it's yet another form of driver distraction. Second, I worry about becoming overly dependent on them. There were moments during my trip, especially when driving small roads late at night, when I didn't really have a sense of where I was. I followed the prompts much as a pilot might follow instruments when flying through a fog bank. It got me where I wanted to go, but I worry that future generations of drivers may lose all sense of where they are and may not notice that the lake has no bridge.

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