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On the Map

In just over a decade, GPS has gone from luxury to ubiquitous technology. So where's it all headed?

Author Alyssa Giacobbe Illustration Quickhoney

IN THE BEGINNING, GPS devices were celebrated for making the world easier to navigate and eliminating the dangerous habit of driving with a 16-inch atlas. But as technology has evolved—these days parents use GPS shoes to keep track of their kids—automotive navigation systems have been forced to evolve with it, moving beyond the simple task of pointing drivers in the right direction and on to more complex things like computing traffic information, surfing the internet and speaking with funny voices (TomTom offers voice options from Darth Vader and Yoda to Homer Simpson, among others). But the new trend in navigation involves another gadget entirely: your cell phone.

According to a recent report by NPD Group’s Mobile Phone Track, four out of five cell phones sold in the fourth quarter of 2009 came with GPS capability. But there’s more to guiding drivers than maps—navigation devices must provide turn-by-turn directions, too. For a while, in-car GPS systems were the only ones able to do that. Then Google introduced free turn-by-turn technology on its popular Android devices last year, and now free turn-by-turn apps for the iPhone are popping up left and right.

“The market for incar GPS units is nearly saturated,” claims John Biggs, editor of gadget blog CrunchGear. But in-car GPS manufacturers aren’t hitting the brakes just yet. Quite the opposite, actually—they’re introducing smart new innovations that will take GPS to the next level. Companies such as Navigon and Garmin have introduced connected systems that pick up traffic and weather patterns via radio signal or “crowd sourcing,” a process by which drivers contribute reports about traffic and weather conditions that are then relayed to everyone else on the road, providing a smoother ride for all. Connected GPS units also allow users to browse the internet and search for deals like cheap gas.

Meanwhile, according to Tim Flight, the editor of GPSReview.net, other innovative third-party applications for the GPS—which will allow drivers to find and book hotel rooms, say, or automatically text friends an ETA— are just around the corner.

ALYSSA GIACOBBE would do anything Yoda tells her.


American cities with the most GPS-guided trips in 2009

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