GPS Units Plug Into the Web, but We're Not There Yet

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 19, 2009

A typical GPS unit has its eyes on the stars and its feet set in concrete: It can fix its location anywhere within reach of Global Positioning System satellites but then must refer to maps that are months or years out of date.

That's good enough to guide a trek along the Blue Ridge, but it may not work as well in a city with shops and restaurants opening and closing all the time. Nor does it reveal a highway's most important feature: the number of cars on it at any given moment.

Web-connected smartphones can do those things, but most of their screens and controls are too small for safe use behind the wheel. So if you can't draft a passenger to serve as your navigator, what other options do you have?

A new GPS receiver from TomTom, the Go 740 Live, fuses both devices by including a wireless modem to fetch traffic reports, the locations of new businesses, weather forecasts and other fresh-off-the-Web tidbits.

Some of these functions have been available in GPS receivers that use an FM radio receiver to tune into data services, but they offer only limited traffic updates and can't do any Web searches for nearby points of interest.

The extra features of the Go 740 Live don't come at a discount, however. It lists for $399.95 with three months of data service included, after which you pay $9.95 a month. (Another Internet-connected GPS unit, TeleNav's business-travel-oriented Shotgun, sells for $299, plus $11.99 a month after the first three months; prepaying for a year of service will lower that rate.)

When you punch in a destination -- as on other GPS units, you can type an address on an onscreen keyboard, search a points-of-interest directory or select a previous endpoint -- the 740 will factor in traffic to choose the fastest route, then advise you on how many minutes congestion will add to the trek.

These updates come from Madison, Wis.-based TrafficCast, which collects and consolidates data from such sources as highway sensors, incident reports, construction schedules, weather forecasts and historical traffic levels.

If the road ahead clots into a river of brake lights, the 740 will place an estimate of the added delay -- in too-small type -- at the right of the screen. A minute or two later, it will speak your new arrival time in a synthesized voice. If it's bad enough, you'll get the option of an alternate route.

But two things can keep you from this happy future of automated traffic avoidance: TrafficCast may not know about the delay, or you may not have any options.

For example, on a drive to New Jersey over Easter weekend, the 740 didn't warn me about stopped traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway north of the Beltway -- though at least the cars got moving again relatively quickly.

On the return trip, the 740 correctly forecast the usual delay where the New Jersey Turnpike's lanes merge. But as Turnpike veterans will attest, there aren't any great alternatives to that highway around the merge -- a fact the 740 reinforced by noting that we were "on the fastest route."

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