Computer navigators keep car on course GPS-equipped vehicles steer driver on right path

March 16, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

What's it like to navigate Baltimore's streets by satellite?

To find out, Sun artist Charles Hazard and I went to the airport on a rainy day to try out a GPS-equipped rental car. We got a 1997 Ford Taurus guided by NeverLost, the name the Hertz Corp. uses for the Rockwell-built Global Positioning System.

Our conclusion: NeverLost is like someone who meets you at the airport, but lets you drive. It describes each step in advance, with two voice warnings before each turn. Common sense is still required, but if you get lost, it calmly offers to set you right again.

Also available at Avis, the Rockwell Pathmaster system combines satellite electronics with computer mapping software. For $6 added to Hertz's daily rental rates ($5 at Avis), it guides customers to specific addresses, or to any of thousands of other sites and services, such as ATMs.

"People love them. They're neat little toys," said Steve Keck, Hertz manager at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The GPS antenna on our Taurus looked like a black hockey puck clipped to the trunk lid. A book-sized computer was hidden in the trunk.

Beside the driver's seat was a 4-inch color computer screen with a few simple buttons. It was perched on a flexible stalk, about where a floor shift would be.

I started the car. The first message on the screen was a stern warning not to be distracted by NeverLost while driving. The next was a question: "Where do you want to go?" (The system offers only English, for now.)

From a series of menus, the driver can enter an address or an intersection. A "points of interest" menu offers thousands of services and attractions for the Middle Atlantic region. I tried counting the museums but quit at 200.

We selected first Maryland, then Baltimore, North Calvert Street, and 501 -- The Sun's downtown address.

NeverLost offered us the "shortest time route," "most use of freeways," or "least use of freeways." We chose the shortest time, and waited 10 seconds while it plotted our course.

A color map of the airport loop road popped up, with a proposed exit route marked in purple. "Please proceed to the highlighted route," it said.

Inexplicably, the computer wanted us to cross three lanes of traffic and make a hairpin turn onto a ramp I had never seen before. So we ignored NeverLost and took a more familiar route.

I was curious to see how the GPS brain would react to my disobedience, but I forgot its first rule: Eyes on the road.

"Watch out!" Hazard shouted.

I hit the brakes and looked up to see a wide-eyed pedestrian in my headlights. Chastened, I inched forward, eyes ahead.

The computer responded with a new map leading us out of the airport. In a few seconds we were motoring along Interstate 195.

NeverLost took us past the Baltimore-Washington Parkway -- the route I would normally take. The map was replaced by text and a big yellow arrow directing me to an I-95 exit five miles away.

About 0.2 of a mile before the exit, NeverLost beeped three times and a male voice said, "Prepare to exit." As we drew closer, it said, "Next exit on right."

We merged onto I-95, and the screen changed. My next move, it said, would be to "take 395N, ahead 4.4 miles."

As we approached the Sun building, the voice piped up again: "Destination ahead." A new map appeared of nearby streets, and an icon showed us creeping up the block. It even tracked our car spiraling up the garage ramp.

When we asked NeverLost to get us to Owings Mills with the "least use of freeways," it picked streets I never would have known to take.

When we abruptly changed destination, NeverLost detoured us through a residential area and had us on our way in a jiffy.

And when we "mistakenly" turned left a mile too soon, NeverLost beeped three times and presented us with a map of the neighborhood we had blundered into. It asked if we needed help, and in 12 seconds, gave us new instructions.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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