Take The Next Left, Said The Car

Test Drive: With The New On-board Satellite Navigation System, You Can Get There From Here Even Without Asking Directions.

April 23, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

The stereotype is that men won't ask directions when they're lost. Instead, with a death grip on the steering wheel and their breath coming in tiny, agitated bursts Yi! Yi! Yi! like an asthmatic Chihuahua, they'll barrel down unfamiliar roads for hours before finally pulling into a gas station somewhere in, say, New Hampshire and asking: "How far's Disney World, partner? Couple miles down the road?" Men say this is a vicious canard. Women say: Just drive with one of these dopes.

The good news is that for anyone who is phobic about asking directions, Acura automobiles now offer a state-of-the-art, in-dash navigation system. It's available as a $2,000 option on its RL luxury sedans -- almost nothing after you've already shelled out $44,000 or so.

The system, which looks like something ripped from the console of the Starship Enterprise, operates by using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, sophisticated software and a gyroscope sensor that detects the vehicle's every turn.

In addition to mapping out the best route to a destination and informing drivers of their exact location at all times -- not unlike some backseat drivers I've known -- the system has a database that identifies airports, landmarks, tourist attractions, even ATMs and service stations.

Despite having an uncanny sense of direction not seen since Marco Polo (he said modestly), I recently drove a forest-green 1997 Acura 3.5 RL to field-test the navigation system.

My guide in this little experiment was Tim Wenz, an Acura spokesman who was probably in his late 20s but looked like he'd just earned his learner's permit.

"Where to?" Wenz asked as we met outside The Baltimore Sun. Not wishing to risk a shower-of-sparks meltdown like the one the supercomputer Hal experienced in "2001: A Space Odyssey," I decided to start the navigation system off easy. So our first destination was Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Wenz fired up the color computer screen positioned at chest level between the two front bucket seats, and explained that there were a number of ways to enter a destination.

Programming it

You could program it by address, typing in the city name, street name and street number. You could program it by intersection (two intersecting street names), by place (city halls, libraries, schools, stadiums, etc.), by previous destination, or by viewing a map on the screen and manually selecting a destination point.

Since "Baltimore" had already been punched in, Wenz simply hit the "Place" button, typed in "Oriole Park" and a map outlining our destination appeared on the screen. So far, so good.

But wait, before we start moving, we need to decide which of four ways we'll use to get there: direct route (the fastest route calculated by combining major roads, secondary roads and speed limit information), easy route (a route using predominantly major roads and a minimal number of turns), minimize freeways (avoids use of freeways, especially helpful for motorists with highway anxiety) and minimize toll roads.


I punched in direct route, because we don't pussyfoot around here in the Big Crab. A map of our destination appeared, including a logo that pinpointed the car's location.

"This navigation system is extremely user-friendly," Wenz said as we set off. "Look, I can't even set the clock on my VCR. But using this is so cake."

Our route took us up Calvert, left on Monument, left on St. Paul, right on Lombard, left on Greene and left on Pratt. A guide display appeared on the computer screen prompting us to each turn.

"Isn't that cool!" said Wenz, displaying the flack's boundless passion for his product.

And if you're worried about staring so hard at the computer screen that you plow into the minivan with the soccer team in front of you, the Acura's navigation system also provides two sets of voice prompts.

One lets you know in advance that a turn is coming. The other lets you know when the turn is imminent, in a voice ("Left turn ahead!") that somehow manages to sound remote and yet mildly enthusiastic at the same time.

It's the kind of voice you hear when you check your voice mail. Not unpleasant, but not fully engaged either. Like your 70-year-old aunt after two margaritas.

At Oriole Park, we programmed the navigation system for a trip to Loyola College, at the corner of North Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane. Then we deliberately veered off the suggested route to see how the computer would react.

"OK, we're totally playing with its head," Wenz said, apparently lapsing into computer lingo.

But there was no fooling this thing. It simply calculates a new route when this happens (without interrupting the driver, no less!). And soon we were turning off I-83 North onto Falls Road and eventually pulling into Homeland.

On our way back to the newspaper office, Wenz explained that the car also contained an "Avoid a Street" function, which could help a motorist avoid known road construction, for instance, or an old girlfriend's house.

I wanted to play with a few more of the system's options, but this thing was so efficient that we were already back at The Sun.

It was time to turn the Acura back to Wenz, and I did so with one enduring thought in mind: At least I wasn't making the car payments.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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