Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Lost and Found Dept.

Vehicle navigation systems graduate into controversy

By Marc K. Stengel

AUGUST 28, 2000:  I am by nature a gadgeteer. I am also most of the time hopelessly out of place when forced to find a way from known Point A to unknown Point B. So it comes as no surprise that I should be fascinated with the proliferation of vehicle navigation systems that are gradually finding their ways into the cockpits of just about anything with a steering wheel.

Just the same, I was a bit surprised last month to read wire-service accounts of a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) report that deemed vehicle navigation systems inherently unsafe. I even came across this discouraging indictment in The Wall Street Journal "[In] one study...drivers using the navigational system swerved out of the lane 87 percent of the time, compared with 20 percent for those tuning the radio and 7 percent for cell-phone users." Setting aside the question of "killer radios," I wondered if this report could possibly be referring to the SatNav systems I'd already learned to count on.

By interesting coincidence of timing, two new Cadillacs I've just driven--the 2000-model Catera and Seville STS sedans--incorporate between them a representative mixture of the latest vehicle guidance systems. Perhaps a summary of their use can establish a bit more complimentary and reassuring tone within the SatNav safety debate.

Common to both the Catera and Seville, as standard equipment, is General Motor's OnStar system. Lest anyone mistake OnStar for a high-end add-on for wealthy gadgeteers only, GM has boldly incorporated its three-button OnStar panel into every single one of its automotive divisions. Moreover, in most models, OnStar is standard equipment. By the end of this calendar year, GM predicts more than 1 million OnStar-equipped vehicles will be on the road. Honda and Toyota are both about to jump on the bandwagon by licensing OnStar's technology.

Still, providing a concise definition for OnStar is a slippery proposition. At its most basic, OnStar is a telecommunication safety service. If an OnStar car crashes and its air bags deploy, an automatic call is placed to the nearest emergency rescue service. If you need a doctor, a Med-Net feature finds one nearby. If your car is stolen, OnStar can locate it. If your keys are locked inside, OnStar can open your doors after you call from an outside phone. If you're lost, pushing the blue OnStar logo-button initiates a hands-free phone call with a disembodied but real, live "map god" who can put your route to right. A premium service even provides the option of making restaurant and hotel reservations, buying show or sports tickets--you know, all that "concierge" stuff.

It should be obvious that GM is taking a page from the Schick and Gillette playbooks by giving away the OnStar razor, then selling people the blades. Currently, OnStar's basic safety service is free for the first year, $199 per year thereafter. The Premium service costs $399 annually; but in all Cadillac and some other models, it too is free for the first year.

From a safety standpoint, it's hard to imagine what about OnStar is the least bit distracting to the point of doom. Its one-button call and hands-free talk features, after all, require even less fumbling about than tuning a radio. But considered strictly as a satellite navigation system, OnStar leaves a bit to be desired. When the "map god" takes your call, your position is locked on a display screen thousands of miles away. Your position doesn't move in real time, and the "map god" can only describe for you orally the street names and compass directions you need for reaching your destination.

Far better is the type of dynamic-scrolling, real-time, map-based system like the one now optional in Cadillac's 2000 Seville STS. This, however, is the proverbial playboy plaything, with a price tag of $1,995. Yet while other manufacturers' systems are similarly priced, Cadillac joins the ranks of the very few (namely Acura and Mercedes-Benz, in my opinion) who've designed their systems just right. Nevertheless, these map-and-display devices are the very ones that incite NHTSA's finger-wagging.

I contend, however, that neither NHTSA nor most consumers of these techie gadgets are yet well enough instructed in their use to minimize, if not eliminate, their risk on the road. Ask any seaman or pilot: The key to successful navigation is plotting a course before departure. And when you do so in a full-featured system like Cadillac Seville's, all that remains is to follow the automatic voice instructions that announce when a turn or some other course correction is required. That's it. No fumbling, no dialing--nothing but paying attention to a computerized Eagle Scout. Even if you deviate from the initial course for a construction detour, the navigation computer quickly recalculates a revised route and proceeds without so much as a hiccup.

Not all map-based SatNav systems are this easy to use, however; some of the worst-designed ones are compromised by maps without enough detail or by address input schemes that are too cumbersome. If NHTSA has a role to play in this debate, it should be primarily to encourage the widest dissemination of the best ideas among manufacturers of these systems--and then to educate consumers how to use them properly. To do otherwise is to risk stunting an entire class of promising technology meant to help us find our way on the road. And that would be a loss.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-2000 DesertNet, LLC . Nashville Scene . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch