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No more back-seat navigators with GPS

The disembodied voice proved to be handy, though not infallible, on a European tour.

October 22, 2006|Edward Segal | Special to The Times

I am one of many American males too proud and stubborn to ask for driving directions. But I was forced to put my ego aside when faced with the prospect of losing something more important than my pride: the ability to enjoy an auto tour of Europe without wasting time getting lost or being frustrated deciphering maps in languages I did not understand.

The source of my salvation was a global positioning satellite, or GPS, device, which made it difficult, though not impossible, to get lost. This technology, first developed by the U.S. military four decades ago, has become widely available to drivers in the last five years, and the Consumer Electronics Assn., a trade group, predicts that more than a million navigation units will be sold this year, a 300% increase from 2002.

Drivers can now choose from three basic GPS styles: hand-helds, which run on batteries; portables, which plug into a car's power outlet; or in-dash devices installed in automobile dashboards.

The in-dash device I had in a rental car not only plotted scores of routes for my 1,500-mile journey through Switzerland, Austria and Germany but also warned me when I strayed off course and told me how to get back on track.

The screen I consulted during our 10-day trip was only the tip of the GPS iceberg. Flying thousands of miles above were two dozen satellites that circle the planet twice a day at 7,000 mph. They, in turn, were in constant communication with my GPS receiver, which was programmed with coordinates for latitude and longitude. When combined with software that converted information about my location, the result was an easy-to-read map that showed where I was and where I was going.

A car trip, never mind satellite technology, wasn't part of the plan when my wife, Pamela, and I flew into Zurich, Switzerland, in May after a pleasant four-day interlude in London. The rest of our loosely planned itinerary was in the hands of Europe's reliable railroad system.

But fate intervened, as it often does. In Murten, a Swiss lake resort town between Bern and Lausanne, Pamela suffered a nasty fall, twisting her right ankle and smacking her left knee on a marble floor. Doctors put her right foot in a heavy cast, placed a flexible brace on her entire left leg, and sentenced her to crutches for the next two months.

Cutting our vacation short was not an option Pamela would consider, she of hardy pioneer stock. But getting around Europe on trains wasn't an option, either, because they require a certain agility to board, navigate and disembark.

So we decided to rent a car and take leisurely scenic excursions in the Swiss countryside, drive through the quaint towns and villages along Germany's Romantic Road and experience the famous autobahns.

Making the most of our changed circumstances, I rented the most comfortable Mercedes-Benz I could find so she could stretch out in the back seat and I could enjoy driving a late-model gadget-laden luxury automobile on some of Europe's finest and fastest roads.

Leaving Pamela at the hotel to rest, I took a short train trip to Bern to pick up the rental car and was joined by our niece Nancy, who would accompany us for a week of our vacation.

Until then, my experience with GPS devices was limited. So when I learned that the car we were about to rent had a GPS system, I decided to take the plunge and settled on a map-free driving tour. This meant I'd always know where I was, even if we didn't always know where we were going. That's when my male pride kicked in again. If we did get lost, I rationalized, at least it wouldn't be my fault.

My first serious and prolonged encounter with GPS technology began as I drove the car off the agency lot and Nancy programmed the unit to take us back to Murten.

As soon as the destination was entered, we heard the no-nonsense voice of a woman speaking German-accented English. "Prepare to turn left," she said. A second, more urgent command followed moments later: "Turn left now!" We nicknamed the disembodied voice "Eva."

I quickly came to regard Eva as an invisible passenger whose presence -- and commands -- could not be ignored. If we failed to follow her directions, her voice became insistent. If we missed a turn or strayed from a predetermined route to explore a local attraction, Eva spouted urgent instructions to get us back on course.

*

Near-gridlock

SOMETIMES, though, she seemed to have trouble keeping up with us. If I turned too quickly on too many surface roads, she almost seemed to be sputtering as she issued a rapid string of directions.

Besides helping us find our way around three European countries, our GPS system made our brief visits or overnight stopovers in several Swiss and German towns much more enjoyable. Its scrolling menus and accompanying step-by-step directions to hotels, restaurants, museums, theaters, casinos and castles gave us more time to enjoy the sights and eliminated arguments that can erupt among traveling companions.

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