Abandoned History: Oldsmobile’s Guidestar Navigation System and Other Cartography (Part IV)


abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

General Motors spent a lot of time and money in the development of TravTek GPS. As we learned in our last installment, the comprehensive (if clunky) navigation system used a touchscreen, had live traffic information, and could even make phone calls. Installed in 100 Toronados used in the greater Orlando area for an entire year, GM, AAA, and various government parties were eager to see just how useful the system was and if it was worthwhile. Narrator: It wasn’t. Let’s find out why.

After the TravTek experiment was over, the U.S. Department of Transportation spent some taxpayer dollars to produce eight different in-depth reports on the system’s general nature, usefulness, and driver acceptance. There was a good amount of data available, as over 4,000 people piloted the 100 Toronados during their tenure as rental and leased vehicles. There were seven different inquiries the government wanted to answer.

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

The questions were: Did the system work? Did drivers save time and avoid congestion via the live traffic data? Will drivers actually use TravTek? How effective was the voice guidance versus a silent map with turn-by-turn displays?

The remaining three questions were: Was TravTek actually safe to use? Could the system benefit travelers who don’t have the system in their car? And finally, would people actually be willing to pay for the TravTek package? The finalized main report on TravTek was published in January 1996 and is 89 pages long (PDF available here). We’ll summarize some of the highlights.

In the DoT report, it was found TravTek users took less time to plan their trips than conventional (paper map) methods, with a time of less than 1.5 minutes for a complete route plan. Using a map took about five minutes. Also faster was time spent en route, as the digital guidance meant directions were easily at hand. Drivers using maps took five minutes longer to complete an identical journey than with TravTek. Overall, trip planning time with TravTek was reduced by 75 percent, and driving time by 25 percent. 

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

Drivers found TravTek easier to use than a map, and suggested their in-car workload was lighter. However, there was no relationship found between TravTek usage and driver safety. Despite TravTek being an advanced whiz-bang technology, users did not find it difficult to use. On average, the system was mastered within three destinations. Unsurprisingly, younger users found the system easier to use than older ones. 

All drivers were given a questionnaire after their TravTek experience. The respondents generally felt TravTek did not interfere with their driving, and assisted them to pay more attention to driving via voice guidance and navigation features. Almost all users agreed the navigation would be useful for long trips.

Though the voice guidance was rudimentary, users much preferred the visual aids of the TravTek to be accompanied by voice guidance. That being said, most loved the system in any case. Asked to rate TravTek on a scale of 1 to 6 with 6 being the highest, the system (with map and directional guidance) was rated as a 5 when voice guidance was off. When it was turned on and all three features were used, the median rating was a 6.

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

Less favorably rated were the quality of the voiceover (which was pretty bad), and the touchscreen navigation interface. One could assume the touchscreen was rated more poorly since it was the most cutting edge part of the navigation process. Fast forward a couple decades, and the general public loves a touchscreen. Some things just take time.

Users were also asked to indicate how much they’d pay for TravTek. In general, the figure was about $1,050 ($2,339 adj.) for a projected 50 percent market penetration. That meant about half of people would be willing to purchase a TravTek at that price point. The dollar figure was slightly higher when the question was framed as an option on a brand new car, where users pegged TravTek’s value at $1,300 ($2,896 adj.).

That $1,300 figure was repeated when users were asked how much they’d pay to add the system as an aftermarket add-on. A low figure when one considered the extra systems, screens, and labor of installation of such a complicated system. Finally, the study found a projected 50 percent market penetration at $28 ($62 adj.) if TravTek were an add-on for a weekly car rental.

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

Those figures above identified a big problem: Costs. There was no way to make the TravTek profitable for that kind of money considering the data, private and state coordination, quantity of information, and mapping required. It was an enormous amount of effort just to cover the Orlando area, with lots of time-sensitive AAA information within the TravTek system. 

Keeping in mind the 100 test cars required their own 24/7 support center staffed with live service representatives, consider the staffing needs if TravTek were launched nationwide. Not to mention the ancillary systems and sensors required for each car, as well as the mandatory car phone connection. In 1992, a car phone would’ve cost over $1,000 to install, plus monthly service and per-minute fees. Data and systems requirements and the public’s lack of perceived value meant the TravTek never made it to full-scale production. 

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

But there was another, more defined issue as well. As mentioned in the last installment, the government was a roadblock to early ’90s consumer GPS devices. The U.S. military was the owner and manager of satellite GPS, and kept the good technology for itself. Though the military allowed civil access to GPS from the 1980s, the civilian system was hampered and much less accurate than the military version. The reasoning was always a simple one: National security.

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

The poor accuracy was part of why the Toronados with TravTek needed a giant antenna and additional sensors at each wheel to help pinpoint the car’s location. This was the case until 1996, when President Clinton announced a new policy directive that would see U.S. GPS assets managed nationally. The announcement in 1996 was followed with two new civilian GPS signals to increase accuracy and reliability in 1998.

abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

The military’s selective availability of GPS signals lasted until May of 2000, at which point civilian users had the same accuracy as the military. Since then, GPS has been considered a “global utility.” The GPS wall that came down in 1996 was great timing for General Motors, as in the interim between TravTek and the Clinton Administration they’d developed a new GPS system: Guidestar! We’ll pick up there next time.

[Images: GM, YouTube, YouTube]

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