Navigating the East Bay Road Maze 

Locals and businesses who make a living on the road are discovering the wonders of global positioning technology.

A year ago Ash Sud sat in a warehouse amid crates of strawberries and bananas, racking his brain. The 28-year-old entrepreneur had just started his own organic produce delivery company in Hayward, and already was attracting plenty of clients. The problem was how to fill all those orders with a single van. His customers lived all over the Bay Area, and finding dozens of houses a day with MapQuest directions was costing Sud way too much time -- which in business, of course, is dinero. "I thought, 'There's got to be a better way,' " he recalls.

The young man found his answer in a nascent portable navigation technology that may one day be standard equipment on the dashboards of East Bay drivers, but is as yet unproven among consumers. The specific unit, StreetPilot III, is one of a growing range of products that combines data from overhead satellites with electronic mapping software to map out a motorist's whereabouts with pinpoint accuracy. The software contained in these gadgets can then calculate the fastest route to any destination and use global positioning data to keep the driver on track.

Roughly seventy percent of commuters from Alameda and Contra Costa counties drove to work solo last year, according to a comprehensive survey by the nonprofit Rides for Bay Area Commuters. And of those motorists, the group reported, more than one in ten choose to drive because they needed their cars on the job. For local people and businesses whose livelihoods depend on covering a lot of miles, a navigation gadget can be indispensable.

It certainly helped Westside Organics: Its fleet has since grown to include three cheerful green-and-white vans -- all equipped with the navigation units. The company manages between fifty and seventy drops a day, and where Sud once spent about five minutes per customer simply to plan the routes, he can now complete each day's delivery strategy in less than an hour. "Without it, I don't think we'd be able to do fifty deliveries a day," says Jonathan Halling, Sud's sales manager and one of his drivers. "It's been very, very good."

On a recent weekday, Halling picks up one of the book-sized machines, which Sud has preloaded, as usual, with that day's route information. He plugs it into the van's cigarette lighter, sets it on the dash, and chooses the first address from a scroll-down list. As the vehicle cruises the streets, an electronic female voice drones out directions -- "In 200 feet, turn left" -- turn by turn and block by block, while a screen on the unit barely bigger than a credit card displays a dynamic map with Halling's position highlighted in pink. He deliberately makes a wrong turn, and before he reaches the end of the block, the system has recalculated the route and alerted the driver to the change: "Off route," drones the fembot.

StreetPilot III, made by Garmin International, is one of the cheapest systems on the market, retailing for less than a grand. You get what you pay for, of course: Its puny memory can only fit enough map information for part of the Bay Area, and the device requires its owner to have a PC and special memory chip in order to load directions into the portable system. Neither is it terribly well-suited for rough-and-tumble life on the road; the unit sits on an unsecured beanbag on Halling's dash, ready to fly off at a sudden stop.

Sud can deal with the shortcomings. As a former software consultant, he's no technophobe, and is plenty comfortable uploading data from his computer. Nor is the limited memory a problem, since his drivers never leave the Bay Area. The frugal small-businessman saw no reason to pay twice the price for a more highly developed system.

Yet for dashboard navigation systems to have mass appeal, industry folks agree they need to be easier to use. "The typical consumer is like the typical driver -- they can drive a car, but don't ask them to open the hood. They just want it to work," said Ajay Prasad, a vice president for Thales Navigation, a developer of comparatively user-friendly systems. For $2,300, its Magellan 750 unit can store everything it needs on an internal hard drive. Over the years, the Livermore/Pleasanton Fire Department has installed Magellans in seven command vehicles, those used by chiefs and fire marshals to race to major incidents. "They're awesome," says Steve McKaskey, a division chief. "We use them all day, every day. Trying to use a map is too difficult."

Another bonus, McKaskey notes, is that it only takes about half an hour to train someone on the Magellan 750, compared with a "couple of days," Halling says, for StreetPilot III.

Like many technologies, satellite navigation devices first became popular in Japan, where they were integrated with onboard televisions and CD players. They were introduced in Europe in the mid-1990s when companies like BMW and Mercedes sold them installed in some luxury models, and portable units were introduced soon afterwards.

These devices are not to be confused with onboard GPS gadgets such as OnStar, which now come standard on some high-end cars. OnStar, which boasts more than two million US subscribers, can give you sports scores and read you your e-mail, but it won't tell you how to get to your nine-year-old's sleepover party.

By contrast, just 300,000 or so in-dash navigation systems were sold last year, and often because those came as standard equipment in very high-end luxury cars, not because consumers requested them. "We don't sell very many," says Reggie Claytor, a sales consultant at Mercedes dealer Stead Motors of Walnut Creek. "They are standard in our most expensive models that sell for $70,000 to $100,000. People buy navigation systems in about two to three percent of cars we sell. It's new for us. But as people get used to them it will probably get more popular -- the technology is changing at a zillion miles an hour."

"We sell them every once in a while, about one or two a month," concurs Dominic Lombardo of East Bay BMW in Pleasanton. "It's an expensive option, so it's something that you've really got to use."

That is expected to change. Prices on the units are projected to drop to half and US sales figures, says government think tank Intelligent Transportation Society of America, should hit nearly three million units by 2007. The newer portables, at about half the price, have sold slowly domestically, less than 25,000 units last year, says Prasad. That, he says, is because people are just now realizing they exist. "One of the reasons it wasn't selling is that there was no product," he says, alluding to the clunkiness of the early versions. "Now the consumer is wanting it."

Thales has its eye on the Bay Area, where people are tech-savvy and tend to have the cash for such luxuries -- it's "one of the best markets," says Prasad. To stir up demand and get people familiar with the gear, Thales recently cut a deal to install Magellan units in 50,000 Hertz rental cars. It seems to be doing the trick. Vacationers and business travelers find it much easier to get around unfamiliar places when a machine tells them where to turn and how to get to the closest restaurants, hotels, and ATMs. After returning the vehicles, people start coveting the navigation systems. A Hertz employee at the Oakland Marriott noted that many customers have been asking for the devices: "You just type in the address -- it's real clear," he said.

As president of AutoNav2000 Plus, a leading retailer of the devices, James Keh has seen sales increase since the Hertz deal, particularly for the Magellans. He sells navigation devices to flower delivery businesses, real estate agents, taxi companies, and fire departments, and expects the devices will take off before long. "They used to be high-end; now more and more people are aware of them," says Keh, whose sales doubled from 2000 to 2001 despite the recession. "We get a lot of retirees and RV-users who want them."

As with any new technology, of course, there are glitches. One problem is that the signals transmitted by GPS satellites are too weak to penetrate mountains, tall buildings, or tunnels. So anytime something blocks the unit's view of the sky, the system loses track of the vehicle. "There are a few areas where the satellite loses you: on Route 84 up to Woodside and in parts of the Oakland hills," says Halling.

Manufacturers are looking for solutions. Thales is tinkering with a device called an accelerometer that measures a vehicle's speed and direction. When a vehicle goes into, say, the Caldecott Tunnel and loses touch with reality, the accelerometer then estimates the driver's position based on its most recent data.

Safety is also a concern, since drivers can be distracted from the road when they look at the screen. Some systems lock to omit the visual display while the vehicle is moving, allowing the machine to give only spoken directions. Another shortcoming is that, while most devices can speak to the driver, few are capable of listening. Voice recognition technology is still pretty poor, so the destination addresses generally must be input by hand.

Nor is the mapping software always on target. "A lot of these databases are not terribly accurate -- it's not uncommon to have errors of more than one hundred meters," says Mike Goodchild, a geography professor at UC Santa Barbara. "It depends whose database you're using -- some are better than others." Perhaps worse in a construction-heavy area like the East Bay: the databases are quickly outdated. To find the quickest route from A to B, software companies collect highly detailed information on traffic patterns, number of stoplights, width of bike lanes, and percentage grades. But by the time the data gets loaded into a real navigation system, many months or sometimes even years have passed.

No great matter for Westside. For the times that Halling's StreetPilot sends him down a dead-end street, as it occasionally does, the Hayward sales manager has installed within reach of his seat a clever backup solution rooted in a technology that is centuries old. His trusty road atlas.

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