The History of Car Navigation Systems and How GPS Has Revolutionized Road Trips

818 × 546

Today, GPS and computer-aided navigation solutions are pretty much everywhere. You’ve got built-in car navigation systems in many vehicles, add-on systems available from third-party manufacturers, and even smartphone apps that allow you to tell where you’re going, how long it will take to get there, and even avoid accidents, traffic jams and speed traps. However, it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, paper maps were the only navigational aid available for drivers. It’s safe to say that in-car navigation and GPS technology have changed road trips and even everyday driving forever.


The Origin of GPS Systems


Like many other things we take for granted, GPS technology has its origins with the US military. There was an early system in place, called TRANSIT, as early as 1960, but it was not particularly sophisticated. Military satellite technology evolved throughout the 1960s and 1970s, finally coming into its own in the 1980s. During the early 1960s, GM was also working on something they hoped would deliver navigational aid to drivers, a system called DAIR. While DAIR never really got off the ground, it was eventually revived, retooled and rolled out. Today, it’s known as OnStar.

800 × 534

Consumer-facing GPS systems came out around this time as well, but they were very expensive, and not particularly reliable. They could often get you to the vicinity of your destination, but were not precise enough to provide turn-by-turn directions, or even to pinpoint your exact location on their own. Part of that was due to the lack of maturity in the technology, but that wasn’t the only reason. The military actively scrambled satellite communications to ensure supremacy over any other system (ostensibly, any enemy systems, but in practice, all other systems). 


More precise consumer-oriented GPS systems finally came out in 2000. It was the same time that President Bill Clinton signed a bill that required the military to stop scrambling satellite signals, immediately providing consumers with much greater accuracy. It also paved the way for GPS technology to be used in a wide range of other applications, including in-car systems installed by automakers.


The Technology Behind GPS


Now that we have explored the origins of GPS technology, we need to pull back the thin veil of user-oriented software and glossy screens to get a look at what lies behind that familiar façade. There are actually quite a few things required to make GPS systems work.

800 × 530

Satellites: GPS technology relies on satellites. Currently, there are around 24 such satellites owned by the US orbiting the planet. Russia has their own network of 22 satellites. Currently, each operates independently, but Russia’s will soon be compatible with US smartphones to improve the accuracy of handheld GPS technology. 


Satellites are necessary for all GPS systems to work. Essentially, several satellites send a signal to your GPS device, which then looks at the timestamp on each signal (at least three are needed). The system then triangulates your location based on the timestamps (thus the distance) of each satellite. 


Satellite technology is only part of the equation. After all, a single ping marking your location isn’t going to do you much good. You also need some visual aids. 

800 × 534


Maps: All GPS systems today display your position on a map. This is true whether you’re using a car navigation system, Apple Maps, Google Maps, Waze, or something else. This is also how these systems allow you to plot your course – you put in your destination, the GPS system analyzes your position against the map, and then charts a course that will help you get from your current location to your destination. 


Maps have changed dramatically over time, thanks in large part to something we’ve already discussed – satellites. Satellite mapping is what has enabled us to chart our planet so accurately, all the way down to individual residential homes in many cases. Google Earth and Google Satellite View show you exactly how this works if you want a firsthand demonstration. It is only with these more accurate maps that modern GPS systems can operate and deliver you to your exact destination.

With that being said, the maps are not stored in a GPS device in the same way that you would read one. They’re stored as vector maps, and each destination, whether that’s a street name, a residential address, or something else, has a geographic coordinate programmed in. 


It’s interesting to note that there is no industry standardization when it comes to map database formats. The format of the database in your personal car is completely different from that used by Waze, which is itself completely different from the one used by Garmin, or the one used by Apple Maps. Almost all map database formats are proprietary property, and are owned by the company that developed them, with little to no sharing of that information. 


However, there is hope on the horizon. NDS is a group formed of automakers, map data suppliers, and navigation system manufacturers who are cooperating in an attempt to create a standard that will apply across the board.


Vehicle Connection: To be clear, not all GPS systems connect with your vehicle. Some, most in fact, connect with a device. This is the case with smartphone app-based systems, as well as with third-party standalone GPS systems (dash mounted GPS devices that aren’t built into the car). However, more and more vehicles today are coming from the automaker with built-in GPS technology. 


Potential Problems


While GPS has changed dramatically for the better in the past 20 years or so, there are still some hurdles to be overcome, particularly when it comes to accuracy. One of the most obvious, at least for anyone who has ever driven within a city where there are skyscrapers, is the fact that satellite signal can be blocked by objects. This doesn’t apply only to buildings – mountains, tunnels, and even thick cloud cover or tree cover can affect satellite signal, leading to a loss of navigability in many instances. 


The Range of Devices


We’ve touched on this topic already, but it bears further scrutiny. While most automakers offer in-car GPS systems today on higher-end trim packages, they are not considered standard equipment as yet. Car navigation systems were also not offered on many older vehicles that are still on the road. Drivers who either could not afford a higher-trim package, or who own an older vehicle still have options when it comes to GPS navigation, though. Although, it may be best to finance a vehicle that has built-in GPS navigation these days.


The original alternative was to use a dash-mountable GPS device. These were made available from a very wide range of companies, and are still on the market today. Like in-car GPS technology, third-party navigation systems have become more polished, capable and accurate as they’ve matured. Many today even offer touchscreen technology to make using them simpler and easier. 


The other option for those without an in-car navigation system is to use a smartphone app. Again, there is a plethora of apps out there, all with varying degrees of accuracy and included features. Waze is one of the most popular, but Apple Maps and Google Maps are not far behind. Both of these were originally simply mapping apps, but they are slowly transitioning into full-blown navigation aids as consumer demand drives their development. 


As you can see, GPS technology has evolved a great deal from what it once was. Today, consumers have many different choices, from in-car navigation systems to dash-mount GPS units to smartphone apps. Of course, all of this has had a profound effect on the driving experience, particularly on the road trip, that most American of summer pastimes.


How Has the GPS Revolutionized Road Trips? 


Not sure exactly what the impact of GPS technology has been on the American summertime road trip? We’ll spell it out for you here.

800 × 527

Safety: One of the most important benefits of modern GPS technology is the increase in safety for drivers and passengers. Because you always know where you are, there’s no need to get out and ask for directions in potentially dangerous areas, or even to drive through “sketchy” neighborhoods. Route sharing and other features also increase your safety. 
Choosing Routes Faster: Back when paper maps were the only navigation tool, it took hours of plotting and planning to choose the right route. Today, GPS technology allows you to choose between various routes within mere minutes, based on factors that matter to you, such as travel time, traffic levels, the presence of law enforcement, and more. 
No More Guesswork: Planning a trip was once an arduous process. You had to account for every little thing, from the amount of fuel in your tank to whether to bring along snacks, and what to do with any refrigerated items, when to stop for bathrooms and more. Today’s GPS systems take all that guesswork out and make planning your trip simple and fast.


A Guiding Hand in Unfamiliar Areas: Who has not experienced the stress and aggravation of driving in an unfamiliar area? It’s easy to miss interstate exits, turns on surface streets, and even addresses. GPS systems help you through by showing you exactly what you need to go.


Custom Programming: Many of today’s GPS systems offer the ability to custom program specific aspects. For instance, you can set home and work locations, favorite addresses, and even change the voice and car icons. Some systems offer even more customization options.


Can Work in Reverse: Once, reversing your trip was almost as difficult as driving out in the first place. Today, you can just reverse your route and head back where you started if you need to. Of course, if you’re headed home, you can always just hit the “home” button and the system will automatically chart a course.


Sharing Location Capabilities: While not available with all GPS systems, many of them are now capable of sharing your location with other people. This touches on everything from convenience to safety. Imagine being able to let a family member or friend know that you’re on your way, and that you’ll be at the destination by a specific time with just the touch of a button, or being able to share your route with others.


Find Locations Easier and Save Time, Money and Sanity: Anyone who ever used a paper map knows how hard it was to find locations – most sightseeing attractions weren’t listed, so you had to get close, and then find directions. Today, you can use your GPS system to look up almost any destination you might want to visit, whether that’s something like Disney World, or just a gas station or donut shop.


Warnings: One of the best features of modern car navigation systems is their real-time updates, which include warnings about hazards in the road, traffic jams, road construction, police presence, and more. In cases where a hazard or situation might cause delays, many systems can automatically check for faster routes and then present those as options.

800 × 534

No More Wrong Turns: While a GPS system cannot prevent you from turning down the wrong street, it can ensure that this doesn’t mean you end up lost. Today’s systems will automatically recalculate the route to your destination even if you repeatedly take wrong turns.


Predicting Fuel and Time Costs: Onboard GPS systems have become increasingly advanced, and integrate much more closely with your car’s main computer system. This allows car navigation systems to offer access to information you cannot gain anywhere else, such as fuel consumption and miles remaining on your tank, the cost of your travel, and a great deal more. 


Emergency Help: While most people today have cell phones, not everyone does. There’s also the potential that your phone will be dead, or unreachable for some reason if an emergency were to occur. Advanced in-car navigation systems, such as OnStar, allow you to call for help with the touch of a button. If the car’s sensors detect a serious event, an OnStar operator can actually contact you directly to see if help is needed.


In Conclusion


As you can see, what began as a purely military technology has evolved dramatically in a relatively short time. Precise GPS technology has only been available to consumers since 2000, and it has come a very long way during that time. Look for this technology to continue evolve, and becoming even more closely integrated with other technologies, particularly with in-car navigation systems.

Categories: News