My Robot Overlords

Back in the day, I served two useful purposes in the car: pick the next tape to play, and keep track of the navigational information on the road map. The iPod has long taken over the first of these duties, leaving me with nothing to do but dictate the next turn. Except for the occasional tendency to reverse right from left, I believe that i have always done a credible job. We’ve found obscure restaurants and other locations in places ranging from North Central PA to North Carolina to San Francisco. But now my last job in the car has been taken from me.

We originally had purchased a Garmin GPS/Palm device that tried to be an in- car navigation system as well as a Palm-based PDA. It sort of worked, but wasn’t really optimally good at either job. As a Palm, it was overly large and power hungry. It ran down the its batteries quickly and IMHO was somewhat difficult to charge.

As an in-car navigation system, the unit also left a lot to be desired. Once you got the thing into navigation mode, it provided excellent and detailed directions, complete with lots of dorky stats like time of arrival, average speed, and the name of the next cross-street. On the other hand, I hated the interface you had to use to set up the navigation mode. To me, it was a maze of bad defaults, stupidly labeled buttons, and teeny leetle inscrutable icons. It was also hard to use while the car moved, especially if you needed to use the stylus to pick things on the screen. Also, you could only search in areas for which you had downloaded maps. Since the unit had limited memory, it could not hold detailed maps for the entire country all at the same time. Once in a while, you’ll find yourself driving out of an area for which you have downloaded the maps, and everything just goes blank.

Finally, the power problems persisted. Woe betide the user who leaves the unit in GPS mode and then turns off the car. Rather than just shutting down, the thing drains the battery, leaving you with the empty husk of a zombie PDA.

I had not noticed any of these problems in the Hertz Neverlost units that we had used in rental cars, but Karen did not like Neverlost, so we came to an uneasy peace with her managing the Garmin and me pestering her to buy a Magellan every once in a while when the thing failed again. The upside of the situation was that I had not been replaced by automation.

But, last week, the unit failed for good, and I got the order to just buy a Magellan 700 for the trip back east to visit parents. This unit almost exactly emulates the search interface and navigation mode of the Hertz Neverlost. As such, I find it straightforward to use. I happily push a few buttons and the map comes to life telling me where to tell Karen to turn the car. There are some gripes compared to the Garmin: the address book storage area is ludicrously small, considering that the thing has a huge disk in it. The on screen display also has a much lower dork factor, not even displaying your current land speed. The thing also seems like it is a bit late in barking instructions for on-ramps, but that could just be the inherent slop in GPS accuracy.

Almost everything else is better. It has no power problems, it comes up quickly and finds the GPS system almost instantly. You don’t need to load maps except for updates. Finally, it has a streamlined interface to search for street addresses and other landmarks. As far as I am concerned it is perfect for in-car navigation. The downside is that I have lost my last useful job in the car. I am now reduced to mindlessly repeating the instructions of a simple automaton to make sure Karen has heard them. When the robot overlords come to take over the earth they will surely do it in subtle ways like this.