- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

Sometimes an idea surprises by actually working.A friend of mine recently bought a Toyota Prius, which has both a gasoline and an electric engine and switches between them for economy. I was going to write a column on the hybrid-engine setup until he showed me the navigation system. It was so cool that I forgot about the engines.
The idea isn't new: Have a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver attached to a computer with a geographic database and a display screen, so you can always see where you are and get directions to where you are going. The military has had similar systems for years in numerous uses.Some cars have had them for a while, though I've heard complaints about their being hard to use.
This one is just plain sweet.
You have a color screen on the dashboard that shows clearly, legibly, prettily a map of the local area with the car in the center. We were on Lee Highway.The bottom of the screen said "Lee Highway." This may not seem a great conceptual advance, but it means you won't be on the wrong road and not know it. The little "car" icon was in the correct lane, moving along the highway.The geek in me was charmed.
The display has a touch screen, so you can change, well, all sorts of things: the scale of the map, the orientation, and so on.What's cute is that it's easy to do.Somebody intelligent may have been involved in designing the thing.
When my friend said he would pick me up, I had started to give him directions. He said, "Nah, don't bother. Just give me the address." I thought he was either brave or a former cabdriver.
Nope. You type in the street address the touch screen turns to a keyboard.Thereafter a pleasant female voice gives directions. "Proceed about five miles … In a quarter of a mile, right turn … Right turn … In a quarter of a mile, traffic circle ahead, and then third exit." It isn't an annoying assemble-the-words electronic voice.
If you are on a big road, as for example a freeway, it gives you more warning so you can maneuver.
One reason for the current practicality is that some time back the Pentagon stopped encrypting accurate GPS signals.The fear was that terrorists and such would use GPS to direct missiles. Consequently the public had access only to a degraded, less accurate signal.That changed.
Because the Toyota system has all of the United States and Canada in its database, it can direct you through strange cities as easily as through Arlington.And my friend swears it actually works. It certainly did for the destinations we fed it that evening. If you miss a turn it told you take, it immediately figures a new route from where you are and starts directing you according to it.
The thing does a lot of other clever things.You can tell it to show restaurants, gas stations, automated teller machines, hotels, and tourist attractions. The map data are on a CD of which you can get updated versions every year, so it knows when things change.You can preset destinations, as for example your house.Thereafter you just say, in effect, "Home, Jeeves," and it gets you there from wherever you are.
It gives you estimated time to destinations, judging by how fast you are moving, and you can ask it for shortest or fastest route and tell it to look for freeways instead of back roads and so on.
Personally, I think taxi companies ought to get lots of these things yesterday. Half the cabdrivers in Arlington seem to have been here for less than three months and just can't find a lot of addresses. They can all turn left on command.
In my days as a police reporter, cops sometimes couldn't find addresses given by the dispatcher. The same applied to ambulance drivers.It isn't incompetence, just that sprawling suburban mazes are hard to learn in detail. Being able to find obscure addresses without fail would save lives.
This isn't a product recommendation: I don't know whose brand works best. But I'll bet it won't be long before the things become standard. You could get used to the convenience fast. I don't drive, but I may get one just for walking around. It might even be possible to find your way through Washington's crazy streets.

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