Onboard navigation systems -- are they worth it?
Do you know the way to San Jose? What about getting
around once you're there?
Travel-weary drivers know it's far trickier to locate
Terraine Street in that California town than getting to its city limits.
That's why luxury cars like the Infiniti FX now tout an onboard navigation
system as the perfect way to overcome the frustration of unfolding
and following a map while driving.
The navigational systems pinpoint a vehicle's location,
courtesy of military-installed global positioning system satellites
across the country, and combine it with mapping software (Navtech
is the name car aficionados recognize). The results show and tell
drivers explicitly how to reach a predetermined destination.
Make a wrong turn, and the software gently guides
you back on track. Some vendors contract for special features, such
as points of interest, restaurants, gas stations and hospitals that
appear in the database, to enrich your journey.
Of course, your trip isn't the only thing being
enriched. Is the technology worth several thousand dollars compared
to a $1.99 map or free street-by-street directions printed off the
So far, many American drivers have answered, "yes,"
although not as resoundingly as motorists worldwide.
Not as popular
U.S. drivers have seen enough of the systems to know to choose a
DVD-based unit over the CD-ROM version to prevent changing discs
every few states. Voice activation, which allows drivers to speak
their destination rather than type it in, also receives high marks.
And the discussions of optimal dashboard display positions are becoming
as passionate as arguments among photographers over the merits of
Canon vs. Nikon.
But in 2002, the global consulting firm Frost &
Sullivan produced a report that showed U.S. sales of automobile navigation
systems lagged behind those of Europe and Japan, primarily because
North American roads tend to have a relatively well laid-out structure
and streets typically don't change names frequently.
Since the report's publication, both the popular Honda
Accord and Toyota Camry have started offering optional navigational
systems. When Veerender Kaul, senior industry analyst for the automotive
group at Frost & Sullivan, last checked in with Honda, the take-up
rate for the option was nearing double digits.
"That's encouraging," says Kaul, "but
it's not reached a point where you can look at any volume-related
cost reductions. Until we see significant interest among this [lower-cost]
segment of vehicles, you won't see any substantial expansion in the
Location drives demand
Some drivers, however, say today's cost is worth
"I would never buy a car without it, but that's
because I live in Southern California where there's a lot of traffic
and many routes to navigate," says Donald Buffamanti, founder
and CEO of AutoSpies.com. "If I lived in Montana where there
are two roads, it's useless."
Similarly minded big-city drivers also might be willing
to shrug off the expense, especially if they rarely venture beyond
familiar office buildings, parks or grandma's for Thanksgiving. When
they do hit the longer road, the reassurance of an in-car navigational
guide is worth it.
The market, however, will continue to treat navigation
systems as neat toys until the dynamic versions (now on some European
roads) find their way to U.S. showroom floors, Kaul predicts. Once
these real-time systems start warning drivers of traffic accidents,
daily construction route changes and weather conditions along their
chosen routes, he expects to see consumers perk up their ears.
And like any technology, when it becomes more widespread,
prices should fall. They've already tumbled from an initial $4,000
price tag to between $1,500 and $2,000 installed.
"Many people don't see a real value at that price
for the current functionality," Kaul says. In his estimation,
the dynamic versions must remain under $2,000 to generate mass excitement.
Costly features still appeal
John Haynes, however, has seen the opposite. As
purchasing manager at Al and Ed's Auto Sound chain in Los Angeles,
he can offer consumers the aftermarket version with voice prompters
for between $999 and $1,299.
"We thought the market would explode in that direction,
but we're still selling more of the $2,000-and-up systems," he
reports. "Consumers like moving graphic interfaces over the static
abilities of the cheaper versions."
But even at the higher price points, don't anticipate
a sales push from the dealership. In fact, most of the salesmen Buffamanti
deals with shy away from highlighting the higher-end feature.
"You may make $200 in commission from the sale,
but you don't want some guy coming back to your dealership for the
next 25 days asking you how to use it," he explains. "They're
afraid of the learning curve."
Buffamanti, a former technical adviser at Apple Computer
in Canada and a senior vice president at MP3.com, says, "The
interfaces are still reasonably poor on how to use these products,
especially the aftermarket versions. Those are 10 times harder to
Dealer vs. aftermarket installation
While Frost & Sullivan finds that 90 percent
of navigation systems are sold as a factory- or dealer-installed option,
aftermarket products exist to fill in the gaps.
The post-purchase installation is particularly appealing
to drivers who want a vehicle that doesn't yet offer the option. It
allows the owner to have his car of choice and a navigational system,
The same manufacturers produce many aftermarket systems,
notes Haynes, and by putting them in later, the auto owner can bypass
paying for additional amenities that the dealer bundles with the navigation
option. Plus, budget-conscious folks can move the gadget from car
On the other hand, navigation systems must be closely
integrated with the vehicle's speed sensor, giving factory versions
the edge. Divorce speedometer signals from the equation, and you basically
enter tunnels blindfolded.
"There's a doubt whether many people can do [installation
integration] effectively," Kaul says.
"The integrated systems can tell whether the wheels
on one side of the car are moving faster than the other, and determine
that you're going around a curve. That kind of invaluable data is
always being processed even if you lose touch with a critical number
of satellites," explains Fred Heiler, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz
And there's one final cost consideration. Regardless
of whether the navigation system comes with your auto or you add it
later, you still must budget several hundred dollars a year for software
upgrades to map road changes.
Julie Sturgeon is a freelance
writer based in Indiana.
-- Posted: Dec. 9, 2003