Two years ago when Taryn Berelowitz and her husband Gavin made the move from New York City to a New Jersey suburb, not only did they go house hunting, they also went car shopping. They considered one feature absolutely essential to assist them in the transition to suburbia: An in-car navigation system to help them get around their new neighborhood. They settled on a Volkswagen Touareg and chose the option that included a system they dubbed "Monica." The ultra-polite female voice delivered easy-to-follow instructions, such as "Turn left now," using information gleaned from the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and sophisticated digital maps developed by Chicago-based Navteq. During their first few months in the new neighborhood, Berelowitz says she was "totally dependent" on Monica. What would they have done if Volkswagen hadn't offered the option? "We would have bought a different car," recalls Berelowitz.
Two years later, Berelowitz has become much more familiar with her neighborhood, and she relies on Monica less and less--even finding some faults in her digital companion. "When I drove my mother to the airport recently, Monica wanted me to drive right through the city of Newark. I ignored her. Sometimes the shortest route isn't the best one."
The good news for consumers like Berelowitz is that in-car navigation systems have become more sophisticated and better over the last couple of years. Thanks to portable systems that can be moved easily from one car to another, you don't have to buy a new car to get one. Some systems are even featured on cell phones. And some use real-time information that can alert you to challenges ahead, such as weather and traffic.
Garmin, for example, has updated its classic StreetPilot by adding a satellite XM Radio receiver so that it can deliver detailed real-time traffic and weather information. The StreetPilot 2730 will re-route you if it learns of a traffic jam from the XM NavTraffic channel or say, flooding from the XM Weather channel. It can also play any of the 150 channels on XM Radio.
The latest trend is that navigation systems have become portable. Market analyst NPD predicts that the portable navigation industry will grow by 100 percent this year. For example, Sony's NavU looks like a little TV with a touch-screen display, plugs into the lighter or AC outlet and attaches to the windshield with a strong suction cup. Moving it from car to car is simple. You can program a home location, which is easy to change if you're traveling--for instance, "home" could be your mother-in-law's house or your hotel. The NavU includes maps of the continental United States. (You can also download a DVD of maps of Alaska, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Canada if you hook up the NavU to your PC.)
For traveling executives, a good route may be to choose a cell phone with a navigation system, such as Verizon's VZ Navigator service offered on Razr phones and others. You may miss the larger display and the touch screen of an in-car device, but the fact that you won't have anything else to pack, take up extra space, remember, or lose may compensate for any deficiencies.
If you're one of those people--and you know who you are--who programs your cell phone to play a different ringtone for each family member and friend, you may get a kick out of Navtones. It delivers your driving directions in different celebrity voices--including actors Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper and John Cleese--and characters, such as a New York City cab driver. The digitized voices can be downloaded from www.navtones.com on a range of TomTom's GPS devices, including the TomTom flagship Go line, TomTom Rider for motorcycles and TomTom Navigator 5.
The future is likely to bring even more innovations for navigation systems. If Japan is any indication, geographic searches will soon start to crop up in hand-held gadgets everywhere. Earlier this year, Japanese cellular carrier KDDI introduced an intriguing geographic search service from a U.S. company called GeoVector. If you point the mobile phone at a building or historical monument, information from the Internet describing the object is displayed instantly on the phone. Beyond sight-seeing, the Japanese are using the service for all kinds of practical purposes--including locating restaurants and hotels. Currently, the service provides descriptions and ads for more than 700,000 locations in Japan, delivered to mobile phones via the Internet. It works with Sony Ericsson phones that incorporate a special Sirf Technology chip combining a satellite receiver with an electronic compass. Pinpoint accuracy is a must for the service to work. It may take a few years for all the pieces to come together in a U.S. product, but it promises to be worth the wait.
Mary Kathleen Flynn is a technology reporter based in New York City. A frequent contributor to U.S. News & World Report, she is a former technology correspondent for CNN and MSNBC.