When the rental car tells you to turn left, just do it

April 07, 1996|By Todd Copilevitz | Todd Copilevitz,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's a bit of a shock the first time a car talks to you. So when my rental ordered a right turn, the surprise carried me straight through the intersection.

But it didn't take long to get used to a car that not only talked, but knew exactly where we were, where we were going and how to get there. That's because we were riding in one of Hertz's cars equipped with the $7-a-day Neverlost system. Avis calls its identical units Guidestar.

For me, the unit, a small terminal between the front seats, stirred up a real conflict of emotions. I'm genetically disposed to covet cool new gadgets. But, as do many men, I hate to rely on others for directions, preferring my internal compass.

On the other hand, my wife was convinced her techno-head husband was about to spoil the vacation with another toy. By the end of the trip, we both were happy, even elated, with our experiences with a smart car.

For the first time, we didn't circle a city endlessly, looking for a restaurant, or have to fight fears that we'd turned into the wrong neighborhood and were destined to be robbed, or worse.

More than 20 years worth of Cold War technology and a little computer muscle power saw to that. The little black box in the trunk held every address in California, millions of details such as which streets are one way and several thousand special addresses, including museums and banks.

The calculator-size display mounted on an unobtrusive metal stalk between the seats kept keyboard confusion to a minimum with only 10 buttons. Most of the time I got by using the four arrow keys to navigate my way through a series of menus and the Enter key when I got the right address.

On average, we punched in our destination in less than 90 seconds. While you're en route, the display has two modes: One shows your location on a map; the other uses bold yellow arrows to indicate your next turn. The screen also shows the name of the next street you'll need, how far you are from it, the direction and distance to your destination.

Then there's the voice that tells you where to go. It was a mechanical male voice with the subtlety of sandpaper. Its repertoire was limited but effective. About a half-mile before a turn, or when passing through a major intersection, it announced where we were headed, such as "Left turn ahead," or, "Stay straight on the current road." At first, the invisible passenger was unsettling, but eventually it became almost a game to see who could predict when we'd hear it next.

But perhaps the best feature was the way the system responded to driver miscues. When I would occasionally miss a turn or misunderstand the directions, the system would beep twice, show my location on a map and instruct me, gently, to return to the highlighted course.

If I knew how to get back on course, the system waited patiently until I was back in the groove. But if I was lost, or detoured by construction, touching a single button told the machine to plot a new course to my destination. That, more than any other feature, removed the fear from driving in a strange new city.

The brains behind the monitor was a customized computer in the trunk, a PC with less than 100 megabytes of hard disk storage. It has two ways of tracking where the car is and its direction.

First, the car has a dead reckoning system that measures where it is by tracking readings from wheel revolutions, direction of turns and their duration, and a gyroscope sensor.

Second, a matchbook-size white plate on the trunk links the unit to the Global Positioning System. With GPS, the computer constantly checks itself with up to six NAVSTAR satellites orbiting the Earth for navigation purposes.

Usually the system pegged our location within a matter of feet. At its worst, we were about a block ahead of its reading. Only once did we encounter a bug in the map database, when it had the wrong street names for our location.

Hertz and Avis have a handful of units in major cities around the country; it's often hit or miss getting one. The systems are making their way into regular cars. Oldsmobile is equipping some models with systems identical to the rental cars for an extra $2,000.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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