It seems incredible now, but the first time I used a production sat-nav system in anger was back in 1998 to steer myself in a Mk4 Golf 1.8T from London to Comrie in Scotland. Of course, I could easily estimate the route to Edinburgh, but the navigation guided me right to the car park of the hotel I was looking for.
One thing that is burnt on my memory is the way the nav system triumphantly announced ‘you have arrived’ as I got to the hotel. Back then, in the day before mass-internet usage, the VW’s sat-nav system was a really stunning piece of technology.
Yesterday, I experienced what is probably the ultimate expression of satellite-navigation technology in the form of Audi’s fully-integrated, internet connected, mapping. I was surprised just how much difference it made to me when piloting the Audi A8 Hybrid and A6 Allroad around unfamiliar territory.
The Audi system uses a 3G connection to overlay Google Earth and Google Street view images onto the mapping. For reasons I can’t quite decipher, seeing the route from a balloonists view made it much easier for me to figure out, for example, which slip road to take on the criss-crossing motorways around Ingolstadt.
Being able to zoom out and see the road ahead - the way it winds along and the terrain through which it is running - also seemed to make a big difference to my progress. It gives you a glimpse of what to expect, which delivers a significant confidence boost on a road you’ve never travelled before. The fact that this Audi system can also colour code the route to deliver information on traffic speed and hold-ups is the icing on the Aprikosenkuchen.
Ironic, then, that when I got back home after my day in southern Germany a news story popped detailing the concerns of US safety authorities about the advances being made in infotainment and navigation systems. At a Washington forum discussing ‘distracted driving’ national transportation safety board chairman Deborah Hersman was quoted as saying ‘If the technology producers focused more on what is safe, than what sells, we'd see highway fatalities go down’. Some 3092 road deaths (over nine per cent of the total) were blamed on ‘distracted driving’ in 2010, according to the news reports.
The US authorities take this issue so seriously, that the US department of transportation recently issued guidance to car makers that demanded no driver task should take longer than two seconds and that entering navigation commands should only be possible when the car is at a standstill. Apparently Deborah Hersman would also like to ban all phone use, including with a hands-free kit.
We shouldn’t ignore the stirrings in the US: the country has an amazing record of introducing globally influential regulations, such as the low-pollution and safety laws that came in during the mid-1970s. I could easily do without hands-free phone calls, but I’d hate to see brilliant systems like this one developed by Audi legislated out of existence.