Spring 2006 Forward to a Friend

Orange barrels appearing overnight, lanes closed unexpectedly, flag persons and traffic stopped ahead that you didn’t expect – too bad a road atlas or a mapping service can’t get you around all that!

Navigation systems can reroute your trip, whether it’s across the country or on your commute to work. And now they’re available to anyone, regardless of what vehicle model you may want to buy or you now have.

Thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS), these electronic road atlases pinpoint your location on even obscure roads across the country. They can establish a route for you to follow back home or to a location hundreds of miles away. And they can talk you through your travels, showing you where fuel, food, lodging, points of interest, civic buildings, airports and even automated teller machines (ATMs) are located along the way.

Recognizing that most Subaru owners do not have built-in navigation systems in their vehicles, the Drive staff wanted to see what aftermarket navigation systems could do, so we ordered Garmin StreetPilot c320 units with FM traffic receivers. None of us had any experience with the systems prior to receiving them. Now we’ve spent some time using them to take us to a variety of places, and here’s our report.

Road Watch Technology

The basics of GPS were explained in the “Geocaching” article in the Winter 2006 issue of Drive. (Look up the article at www.drivesubaru.com.) Essentially, satellites circling the earth transmit coded signals that can be read by receivers. Technological advances have made GPS accuracy possible to within a few feet.

Still other technology provides traffic information – in real time. Changes in traffic flow on streets in major metropolitan areas are monitored, and information concerning them can be received by small FM-band receivers that show those changes on the navigation maps.

Planning and Consulting

The capabilities of the navigation systems are limited only by the detail of the mapping software built into them, and usually the amount of information they provide is in proportion to their price. That applies to their functionality as well.

Our systems could show us where we were at any given time. We also could enter an address, and it would calculate the route to take, provide an estimated arrival time and direct us every step of the way. Options for routing included such choices as major or “scenic” routes, shortest time or shortest distance and whether to allow ferries to be included. We also had the option of a voice telling us when to turn.

The address need not be entered by street and city, either. Instead, we could point to the final destination, and the route to it then was calculated.

Once under way, if we deviated off course, the system would recalculate the route and tell us how to return to it or design an entirely new route option. The navigation system was undaunted by the number of times it had to recalculate, and it wouldn’t take more than a few seconds to offer its suggestions.

The scale of the map showing on the system’s screen could be varied from as close as a city block to miles of roads to the whole country. The closer the scale, the more information about the immediate surroundings was available. Points of interest and street names drop off when you zoom out past a certain point. When following a mapped route, the scale automatically becomes closer when approaching a turn.

Courtesy of Garmin International
Also, points of interest were available from the menu. (Always have your passenger operate this function!) We were able to look up restaurants by types of food, gas stations, ATMs, tourist attractions and hotels. If we knew a destination’s name and/or address, we could find it.

Another part of the system that we found helpful was the trip computer. It presented more information than you’ll probably ever need.

Features You Might Like

Not all GPS units will have these particular features, but they may have something similar.

MAP VIEW: Some units have a choice of view – flat or three-dimensional displays. Reaction to the 3-D displays is usually the most enthusiastic for their appearance and for their ability to show what lies ahead. It helps the driver actually navigate the route. Units also allow a range of scales to be set – closer for more detail or farther away for an overall view.

Another part of the view is the intensity of the display. It automatically changes with sunset and sunrise – from a white background in daylight to a black background in the dark.

CHOICE OF TYPE OF ROUTE, WITH “TURN-BY-TURN” ROUTING: Mapping choices often include the fastest route and shortest route, which are not necessarily the same. They also might allow selection of road types – U-turns, highways, carpool lanes, toll roads, unpaved roads, ferries over water and roads with heavy traffic.

ORIENTATION OF NORTH: Which do you prefer – the road map to rotate around you on the display or you to turn in the direction of travel with north always up? Many of these GPS units allow you to decide.

DIRECTIONS: Written and oral turn-by-turn instructions direct the driver to a selected destination, with warnings of upcoming turns spaced to give the driver time to prepare. A voice or warning tone provides directions, and the display provides printed directions (“next street” or the name of the street, depending on the unit and driver’s preference).

DETOURS: Should you wander off the route for whatever reason, the GPS unit’s software recalculates your route to help you reach your destination.

SERVICES/ATTRACTIONS: The menu can be accessed to find food, lodging, fuel, attractions, shopping, parking, entertainment, recreation, public buildings in the community, hospitals, transportation stations and other addresses programmed into the software. After a stop, it has the ability to return to the original location. If you have an address, the task is quick and easy. The software also can find an attraction by its name.

TRIP COMPUTER: Our units included a screen that showed current direction of travel, vehicle speed, distance to the final destination, distance traveled, average speed, average speed while moving, maximum speed, total time elapsed, total moving time and total time stopped. All this can be reset at any time.

TRAFFIC (FROM A TRAFFIC RECEIVER – TMC = TRAFFIC MESSAGE CHANNEL): Hooking up a TMC to the GPS unit provides valuable information concerning construction and traffic problems. A yellow diamond on the display indicates that there’s a problem ahead, and icons on the map as well as markings on the map’s roads show exactly where the problem is. The system has the ability to offer an alternate route. TMC is available in many cities.

First Impressions

Drivers and passengers from vehicles in which the systems were installed had interesting reactions.

“Traveling a road that I’d been on many times, I noticed the map showing a lake near the road. I looked to the side, and there it was – visible through the trees because it was winter. I’d never seen it before!”

“What a great technology for older people who need reassurance in finding places when they travel!”

“I’m amazed by it. How can it tell how fast my car is going? And it knows when I missed a ramp on my route within just a few seconds.”

“We used it to find a back road in the middle of nowhere so we could watch a rally event. With no markers to go by and a map of the stage being run, we found an excellent area from which to watch the cars.”

“On my first road trip with the nav system, I entered the address of our hotel and promptly forgot my road atlas. I never travel without an atlas in the car. The destination was in a difficult location to find, and the system delivered us right to the door. Anyone interested in a used atlas?”

“I wish I would have had something like this years ago. When I was on the road for my job, I’d call up my husband and tell him I’m lost and have no clue where I am. He had street-map software on his computer, and he’d talk me through to roads that I knew. With this navigation system, all I’d have to do is set it to take me home.”

“The traffic receiver is incredible. Now I don’t have to trust solely what I hear on the radio from the traffic reporters. I can see what’s happening ahead, plus I’m given another route to follow.”

“Having the navigation system in the car is the first time our son has taken any interest in where we’re going. Instead of asking, ‘How long ’til we get there?’ he watches the trips unfold on screen as well as through the windows of the car.”

“Watch abbreviations when entering addresses. If the unit you’re using abbreviates ‘North’ as ‘N,’ ‘No Park Drive’ won’t be found in the database. Concerning street names – at times, the popular name for a street or road is not the same name used by the mapping software. ‘Route 130’ may be ‘Crescent Boulevard’ (or is that ‘Blvd’?) in the mapping software.”

“I thought I knew the shortest route to work. The unit suggested an alternative that is actually shorter, so now I follow the new route.”

“The GPS unit is small enough that I take it along when I travel and use it in my rental cars. Sorry, Hertz! No more NeverLost®!”

Finding a Way

Our observation is that navigation systems add to the comfort, convenience and safety of driving, whether commuting, traveling long distances or just trying to get around town the easiest possible way. They’re also educational and fun to use, and they incorporate some of our favorite things – driving, advanced technology and knowing where we are.