Pretty soon, we may not even have to drive ourselves, but we'll still need to rely on the incredibly complex infrastructure of satellites and gadgets to get us from point A to point B. In this week's Rewind, we look at some highlights in the evolution of in-car navigation technology, from old-school cartography to today's digital tools.
In 1921, John J. Bovy of Minnesota patented his idea for a handy navigation tool: a scrollable map which could be mounted near a car steering wheel. A similar, but wearable version of that concept arrived in the UK several years later called the "Plus Four" Wristlet Route Indicator.
Around 1932, an Italian company released its own navigation system called the Iter-Auto. This incorporated a scrolling map in a dash-mounted case, but added motor-connected cabling so it could advance the map automatically in pace with driving speed.
Eye in the sky
By 1960, the US launched its first successfully orbiting navigation satellite called Transit 1B. It was joined by a few other Transit satellites over the years and the system became operational in 1964. This solar-powered array used radio signals to provide navigational fixes for US Navy Polaris submarines. It could help vessels pinpoint their locations in relation to the satellites above, but since there was a limited deployment, a signal wasn't always available.
General Motors Research (GMR) was working on a non-satellite-based navigation and assistance system in 1966 called DAIR (Driver Aid, Information & Routing). This in-car console offered two-way communication with a service center and could receive radio updates about traffic from roadside beacons. Magnets embedded in the road triggered audible notifications about upcoming exits and current speed limits. Drivers could also get directions by pulling up to a nearby routing station and getting a punch card that could serve up direction arrows (right, left or straight) to help get you to your destination.
It was an ambitious system, but after initial tests GM found that it wasn't a scalable or practical way to provide navigation assistance. Decades later, however, the concept would be reborn as OnStar.
The GPS constellation
After the relative success of the Transit system, the US Naval Research Lab launched a new satellite program in 1964 called TIMATION. This system was based on ranging paired with atomic clocks for timing. That first orbiter was soon joined by the TIMATION II, NTS-1 and lastly the NTS-2, which launched in 1977. The NTS-2 was the most advanced of the group and helped pave the way for the NAVSTAR GPS constellation, which today includes about 32 Earth-orbiting satellites. Unlike Transit, NAVSTAR was eventually spread out across the globe, providing constant, three-dimensional positioning.
Locking in location
While satellites were piling up in orbit, electronics maker Rockwell Collins had begun work on its first GPS receiver known as the "Generalized Development Model" (or GDM). It was one of the first to connect with the NTS-2 satellite when it went live in 1977. Field tests began around 1978, when this massive wheeled assembly was loaded on board a transport plane.
The company went on to become one of the largest suppliers of GPS technology to the military, as well as the commercial sector with customers like Garmin and TomTom.
Honda embarked on its own program to develop an automobile navigation system in 1977 when it discovered an affordable and reliable gas gyroscope to assist in route guidance. The device could track directional changes and, along with dead reckoning (determining course based on speed and trajectory), it was able to show the vehicle's progress on a monochrome CRT display. Using a zero starting point and transparent map overlays, the car's location could be traced along a chosen route.
The Electro Gyrocator was introduced as a dealer add-on in 1981, but never went into full production.
Up until 1983, GPS satellites had been strictly for military use, but President Ronald Reagan issued a directive that year to declassify it and make it available for civilian and commercial purposes. That access was hobbled, however, by "Selective Availability" (SA), which denied the full level of accuracy that the military still enjoyed.
Since the NAVSTAR GPS constellation wouldn't be fully operational until 1995, navigation systems like Ford's 1983 Tripmonitor concept still relied on the original Transit satellites for tracking. By acquiring a signal through a rear-mounted antenna, the car's position could be pinpointed to a location within 400 meters -- if it was within the satellite's range. When not in contact with a satellite, the system fell back on dead reckoning to update its location.
Mapping the world
Stanley Honey received startup capital from Nolan Bushnell (Atari) in 1983 after working on a small nautical navigation project for him. Looking to tap the commercial potential for route-assistance in cars, Honey created ETAK Inc.
By 1985, the company had a system with a vector-drawn, heading-up display, where the map rotated along with the vehicle's turns to keep the destination at the top. At the time, map data was stored on 3.5MB compact cassettes. ETAK had been digitizing its own maps and made extra money by providing the information to businesses like FedEx and UPS. Its extensive database drew a lot of attention. The company was soon acquired by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and later changed hands to Sony and eventually TomTom.
A reliable position
Although a certain degree of access to GPS satellites had been granted in the '80s, it wasn't until President Bill Clinton established an Interagency GPS Executive Board in 1996 that any progress was made. By the year 2000, the government finally discontinued Selective Availability and made accurate global positioning data available for civilian and commercial users worldwide.
Digital control center
Navigation systems graduated from cassette-based maps in the late '80s and '90s when they began to rely on relatively spacious CD-ROMs and DVDs for data storage. Around 2001, HDD-based systems began to arrive, which were more resilient and conveniently skip-proof. They also boasted larger storage capacities, rapidly growing from around 10GB to 80GB or more.
System's like Panasonic's Strada CN-NVD905U not only provided touchscreen-based navigation tools, but also handled the car's entertainment system, and all in one convenient package.
Navigation to Go
With the ever-increasing capabilities of mobile phones, companies like TomTom decided to focus on navigation apps. In 2002, it released Navigator for PDAs, which came complete with a docking cradle and GPS receiver to help with location-tracking.
In 2004, TomTom decided to bundle the tech into a portable, standalone unit called TomTom Go. This format freed drivers from the cost and constraints of an embedded system. Go came preloaded with maps, could highlight points of interest and offer voice-guided route instructions
As the deluge of always-on technology strives to distract us at any given moment, it's not surprising that head-up displays (HUD) would be the next phase in navigation. Some high-end vehicles have started to include these systems, like the 2011 BMW 3 Series, which offered a full-color, windshield-projected display.
In 2013, Pioneer launched its NavGate system, which offered a degree of augmented reality to its satellite navigation features. Instead of projecting on the windshield, it used a transparent visor placed in the driver's line of sight to overlay smartphone-delivered directions, estimated time of arrival and traffic alerts.