- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If the Fourth of July weekend symbolizes anything in America’s recent decades, it’s the ritual of piling family and/or friends into a car and going somewhere. Yes, gas at $4-and-change per gallon is changing that picture for many, but I’m guessing the roads to, say, Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, or Virginia Beach or even Myrtle Beach, S.C., will have more than their share of traffic this holiday.

How do you get there, then? Veterans likely will have the route to Ocean City engraved on their cerebral cortexes. The rest of us can print out a map, including turn-by-turn directions, from Google Maps or Mapquest. However, neither the cortex nor the computer printout can tell us there’s a traffic jam two miles ahead or that you can take this exit and make that turn to avoid said backup.

For that, you need XM NavTraffic, or so District-based XM satellite radio would have you believe. NavTraffic covers 77 markets in the United States and three in Canada and delivers what the firm says is the first real-time, satellite-delivered traffic information service.

The idea is to take all sorts of streams of traffic data and bring the information to the car in time for you to do something about it, using data from Navteq Traffic, the Chicago-based firm that collects traffic data from road sensors, transportation departments, police and emergency services, cameras and airborne reporters.

XM makes the NavTraffic service, a $4-per-month add-on to the $12.95 monthly XM satellite radio subscription, available to pre-installed systems in Cadillac, Porsche, Nissan, Toyota, Infiniti, Chevrolet and other makes and also on aftermarket in-car systems from Pioneer, Alpine, Garmin and Kenwood. In short, if you want the service, you can get it. However, for example, adding it to a Pioneer car audio/video system could add $200 in equipment costs to the $1,600 price tag of a compatible Pioneer car audio system.

For this review, XM allowed me to road test NavTraffic in a 2008 Cadillac CTS, which I drove around the metro area and on a Father’s Day trip to New York City. Don’t envy me too much: The CTS uses only premium gas, at $4.22 per gallon and more. (It’s also thirsty, getting about 19 miles per gallon, according to the car’s own computer.)

On the CTS, the NavTraffic system is integrated into the Cadillac’s Bose-manufactured car audio system with a pop-up LCD touch-screen display. The learning curve isn’t steep: After a few minutes of fiddling with the touch screen, I was able to select addresses and ask the system to calculate my best route. One caution: The system won’t let you enter a full address while the car is moving; you can select a previous destination, though. To start from scratch, the car must be stopped, something XM says is designed to enhance driver safety.

With an address entered, you can be routed via the fastest, shortest or most convenient route. A voice narration is available, but an XMer said he found this distracting and muted the speech, which tends to lower the volume on the radio and offer the usual, somewhat clipped narration found in many GPS systems.

I didn’t always find what I was seeking: the use of live data to steer me away from, or around, traffic jams. Instead, in at least one instance, it steered me into one. En route to New York, the system indicated traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel. Use the Holland Tunnel, farther down in Manhattan, instead, was the suggestion. That seemed fine - until I ended up sitting in a one-hour backup there. Something should have warned me - say, XM NavTraffic, perhaps.

Also ironic, in my view, is that there is no way to link the NavTraffic data with the range of XM radio traffic reports, which are updated constantly from the XM studios, where announcers monitor remote feeds of traffic cameras and other data. It would be nice to have a connection between the two, something that shouldn’t be technically impossible to accomplish.

No GPS is perfect, and even the addition of real-time traffic data isn’t flawless. However, with the premiums charged by carmakers or aftermarket suppliers for the gear to show this, I expected a bit more. During my driving time, there wasn’t much in the way of traffic, but when it hit, it was rough, even with the car’s soft, supple leather seats and its silken ride.

Bottom line: I’d consider NavTraffic, but I’m hoping to see much more in the way of real-time reporting, and, frankly, real-time alternatives.

One alternative may come from Silicon Valley-based Dash Navigation. The $399 Dash Express is what the firm calls “the first-ever Internet-connected GPS device,” delivering data similar to that of NavTraffic but via a cellular data connection and with feedback from other Dash Express drivers in the area. If you’re three miles ahead of me and hit a rough spot, your Dash GPS will send a report that I’ll see on my Dash GPS, or so claims Robert Acker, the firm’s marketing vice president and, ironically, the first full-time hire at XM. You can see Mr. Acker make his case on a video (youtube.com/watch?v=Rj891Ha_toY).

I’ve not had a Dash Express to play with yet, so all I have to go on is a demo and Mr. Acker’s word. When and as I get the opportunity to test it, you’ll see the results here, and perhaps on the Capital Beltway.

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