COMPARISON: Techno-challenged consumer finds factory-equipped navigation systems far from perfect

Name: Jeff Mortimer

Profession: Free-lance writer, editor

Age: 55

Favorite technologies: Movable type, followed closely by air-conditioning and the dishwasher

Least-favorite technology: Cell phones

Item he misses that technology replaced: Printers. The people, that is. They were a fascinating subculture, and now they're as obsolete as blacksmiths. More so, I guess; some people still have horses.

Favorite Web site:

Computer: It's a hybrid assembled by my computer guru friend. The guts (hard drive, ports, etc.) have a Computer Alley (the retailer) nameplate, the monitor is Dell, the keyboard Key Tronic, the printer HP, with Altec speakers.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a tech guy, and I am not a car guy (at least, I wasn't until I drove a Mercedes-Benz for this article. But that's another story). To me, computers and cars are appliances, not aesthetic experiences or total living environments. I just want them to work.

My lack of technical experience actually qualified me to test and report on three factory-equipped navigation systems made available to Automotive News. Because driver distraction is such a hot issue, automakers must make these and other telematics technologies intuitive enough to be used easily by the likes of me - a typical driver. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the systems to win wide market acceptance.

But if I am, indeed, typical, that day is still a few years off.

Here's what I tested:

  • General Motors' OnStar system with Virtual Advisor. OnStar () uses Global Positioning System satellite and cellular technology to link drivers to OnStar centers for route guidance and other information. Basic service begins at $199 a year. But for another $200 annually, Virtual Advisor subscribers can get personalized services such as e-mail, stock quotes, sports reports, news, weather and real-time traffic information in 71 U.S. cities.

  • Lexus Navigation System. The DVD system is standard on the SC 430 and LX 470 and a $2,000 option on all other models. I tested a 2001 model. The system on the 2002 models is faster, finds alternative directions when the driver changes route and includes Canadian destinations in its database.

  • Mercedes' COMAND system. A satellite-based navigation device, COMAND is standard on the S and CL class, and M class sport-utilities. It is a $2,495 option on C, E and CLK class cars. An optional digital cellular telephone integrates with COMAND and can be directed by voice commands.

    All alone

    The bottom line to all these systems is that Lily Tomlin's famous comment is still true: We're all in this alone. You still have to drive. Your judgment, for better or worse, is still your most reliable tool. These systems all sought, in effect, to replace me, but they weren't any better than I am. And they didn't make my driving life any easier.

    With OnStar, you call people instead of interacting with a monitor displaying navigational information. This arrangement is less distracting - at least visually. But chatting with a disembodied voice filling the car also tended to divide my attention, and the voices sometimes were all too human. One gave me wrong directions. Another didn't know on which side of the road an address was located. Another started chatting, forgetting to give me a prompt. Yet another took so long to call up the map that I missed my turn while going 75 mph on a Detroit freeway. Once I had to wait four minutes before being connected.

    I had more options with Virtual Advisor than with the other two systems, which may be great for personal development but not for onboard help. Virtual Advisor wanted exasperatingly slow shouts as commands, and even they didn't seem to work when I was trying to retrieve my supposedly customized news, sports, stocks, weather and traffic reports.

    My most vivid memories are of asking for the Detroit Tigers score and getting tennis results, asking for Major League Baseball scores and getting the winning numbers in the Ohio Lottery, and having the voice - the one that kept asking me what it could do for me - murmur at one point, "Sorry, I'm having a little trouble right now; please try back later" and sign itself off.

    Dangerously distracting

    The Lexus () system was extremely distracting. The large monitor was at eye level, and the display is in motion constantly. It was an effort to keep my eyes from it, the way your tongue won't stay away from a loose tooth. And because the screen is operated by touch, it's awfully close.

    Once I got the hang of it - a major caveat - it was reasonably easy to use, but it was laden with quirks. If it didn't know how to describe my location, the voice prompt would tell me I was driving through or past a prairie. Huh?

    The system once told me to "make a legal U-turn." As opposed to, say, an illegal U-turn? But that probably was one of those occasions when it was trying to direct me back to its prescribed route. If I deviated from that course, it would insist on getting me back on track, rather than reprogramming itself for the one I had chosen, as does the COMAND system.

    Denso makes the hardware and Navigation Technologies the software for the Lexus system.

    Feeling safe

    The screen on the Mercedes () system is more safely positioned, at about the level of most sound systems, a bit below eye level and partially obscured by the steering wheel. I would look for it when I needed it, and the moment or two spent doing that would make me consider pulling off if I were going to look at it for any length of time.

    The graphics are clear and simple, and there's an auxiliary display right below the speedometer (so you don't have to move your eyes) that you can toggle through with a button on the steering wheel to view all essential route information. Like most good ideas, it's the essence of simplicity.

    The system was easy to learn, too, thanks to the instructional video that accompanied the car. The unit, made by Bosch, also mutes the stereo when it gives voice prompts and lets you know when you have reached your destination. But in my final moments in the car, its helpful voice prompt unaccountably fell silent. I was minutes away from returning the vehicle, or I would have called the help line to report the problem. I'm sure some nice folks would have been there in a jiffy, either to repair the problem or give me a replacement car. But I didn't want to bother with that. Driving a Mercedes for almost a week had made me extremely picky.

    Truth be told, I wouldn't order any of these systems. They're time-consuming to learn, cumbersome to use, sometimes confused as well as confusing and chronically frustrating; they would be of limited use even if all this weren't true.

    For the record, I also tested an aftermarket navigation system by Alpine of America (about $2,500 with monitor). I found it the easiest to use. Its display was elegantly designed, offering a great deal of data, including the time of day, estimated time of arrival (which turned out to be exact), miles and estimated time until arrival. It also offers the name of the road you're on, the name of the next road you'll use and a clear graphic of what the turn will look like when you get there - plus the least irritating voice prompts of any system - in a compact space. It employed a remote control, which I found much more convenient than having to monkey with the screen.

    But the Alpine () system had a downside, too.

    I had to reboot it once when it got hung up while calculating a route. It announced some intersections and not others, based on no principle that I could discern. It frequently switched unbidden from one display to another. And I was unable to enter one destination because the street address had four digits and the menu allowed for only three. I imagine there's a way to reconfigure that, but I was in too much of a hurry to revisit the manual.

    How useful are these systems to the average person trying to get to work on time, schlepping the kids to soccer practice or running weekend errands? They already know how to get to all those places. As for places you haven't been, maps still work fine. Even if you're the sort of person who likes or feels a need for such devices, these aren't technically sophisticated enough to use without distraction - not yet.

    Jeff Mortimer is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based free-lance writer.

  • You can reach Jeff Mortimer at (Unknown address)

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