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Location aids catch on, even give traffic alerts

December 07, 2005|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

The most common phrases uttered in a car this year, according to a recent insurance company survey, were "Are we there yet?" "Do you know where you are going?" and "You missed the turn."

That's probably comforting news to the makers and sellers of GPS units who believe this holiday season will propel their technology further into the consumer mainstream.

Sales of Global Positioning System equipment have doubled as average prices have dropped during the past four years. The latest, and top-of-the line, versions offer real-time traffic information, weather updates and new radio channels.

"This will be the first season it's tested," said Ted Gartner, a spokesman for Garmin International Inc., a major GPS manufacturer, of the real-time traffic features. "We think people who know their cities will use it to avoid traffic tie-ups or when they commute to work. GPS isn't just GPS anymore. Traffic is the new frontier."

Garmin and others say their surveys show traffic information is the most coveted advance sought from GPS units, and several products have been launched in recent months, beamed via satellite or FM radio waves. The updates warn drivers of road closures, accidents and other problems and offer alternative routes.

The makers and sellers say consumer demand for the service coupled with demand for new gadgetry in general by holiday gift givers may provide a push for the newly loaded GPS units, which cost about $1,000 and come with a monthly fee.

The Consumer Electronics Association reports that 2004 factory-to-dealer sales of all kinds of electronic devices totaled $113 billion in 2004 and are expected to rise 9 percent to $123 billion this year.

Sean Wargo, the association's director of industry analysis, said MP3 music players will top the digital camera and plasma TV as the hottest seller among consumer electronics this season, but electronics in general are expected to sell well as consumers look to buy new devices and upgrade older ones.

Possibly the biggest factor propelling sales of GPS units is prices, which have come down as more manufacturers mass-produce units and compete for buyers, according to makers and sellers of the devices, who say hundreds of thousands of them are in use.

Factory sales of GPS units, both the hand-held and vehicular kind, are projected to grow to 738,000 this year from 162,000 units in 2001. The average price, meanwhile, has dropped to $473 from $888 during that span.

Like radios, cassette players and compact disk players, GPS may eventually become almost standard in cars, especially as their popularity rises with positive word of mouth from users such as Charles Ripley of Davidsonville. He was recently in the market for his second GPS unit. He wanted one for his car that "has a voice interface" - one that speaks directions instead of just listing them on the screen.

The GPS era came to the United States about seven years ago, but manufacturers have been trying to make them more valuable to travelers, and are now focusing on commuters who know where they are going but want extra help or entertainment for the long drives. Garmin, for example, now offers one package with the traffic feature and XM Radio.

Partnering is becoming a good way for electronics makers and service providers like XM, with more than 5 million subscribers, to introduce their products to more customers and, at times, at a bundled discount, said David Butler, an XM spokesman.

Other features are in the works for the GPS makers, such as reminders from the auto shop for maintenance.

The latest GPS units come with the receiver for radio and traffic reports built in, and others can be hooked up to a separate antenna to get the extras. The monthly fees, on top of the $1,000 or so cost of the latest and most loaded auto system, range from about $10 a month to about $17.

There are several manufactures, such as Garmin, Cobra Electronics Corp. and TomTom Inc., and systems that use both satellites and FM radio signals to transmit traffic data are available in the Baltimore area.

The traffic information is beamed from suppliers that collect it from a series of roadside sensors, government sources, airplanes and other sources.

One such supplier, Traffic.com, expects the service to be available to more than 50 metropolitan areas by the end of next year and to 100 million drivers, 64 million of whom commute by car daily.

When Traffic.com announced it would add sensors along Maryland highways in August, it noted a Urban Mobility Report released this year by the Texas Transportation Institute that said traffic congestion cost Baltimore-area drivers 62 million hours of delay and nearly 40 million gallons of wasted fuel in 2003.

For those not ready to buy a GPS system, there are companies that will rent GPS devices. And most of the big rental car companies offer the service for about $10 a day. Avis Rent A Car System added the traffic feature to its Motorola Inc. GPS units in August.

On a recent trip to a Best Buy store in Annapolis, Edward McBride found himself staring at the GPS display and wondering aloud if a unit would have been helpful the other day.

"On a drive recently, there was a tree across the road and I only knew the one way to get where I was going. It would have been nice to have been able to find a way around," the Arnold resident said. "I don't really need it, but I'm intrigued by it."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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