Many of us now carry a phone that can give us detailed directions from where we are to a destination of our choosing. This luxury became commonplace over the last decade plus, replacing the pen-and-paper solution of consulting a map to plan a trip and writing down steps along the way. During the trip we would have to manually keep track of which step we’re on, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have the car do that automatically? [Ars Technica] showed us that innovators were marketing solutions for automatic step by step driving directions in a car over a 100 years ago.
Systems like the Jones Live-Map obviously predated GPS satellites, so they used vehicle odometry. Given a starting point and a mechanical link to the drivetrain, these machines can calculate miles traversed and scroll to the corresponding place in the list of instructions. This is a concept that has been used in many different contexts since, including the “Next Bus in 7 Minutes” type of display at bus stops. Because a bus runs a fixed route, it is possible to determine location of a bus given its odometer reading transmitted over radio. This was useful before the days of cheap GPS receiver and cellular modems. But the odometry systems would go awry if a bus rerouted due to accidents or weather, and obviously the same would apply to those old school systems as well. Taking a detour or, as the article stated, even erratic driving would accumulate errors by the end of the trip.
The other shortcoming is that these systems predated text-to-speech, so reading the fine print on those wheels became a predecessor to today’s distracted driving problem. One of the patent diagrams explained the solution is to hand the device to a passenger to read. But if there’s a copilot available for reading, they can just as easily track the manual list of directions or use a map directly. The limited utility relative to complexity and cost is probably why those systems faded away. But the desire to solve the problem never faded, so every time new technology became available, someone would try again. Just as they did with a tape casette system in the 1970s and the computerized Etak in the 1980s.
[Photo by Seal Cove Auto Museum]
Our recent “Retrotechtacular” feature on an early 1970s dead-reckoning car navigation system stirred a memory of another pre-GPS solution for the question that had vexed the motoring public on road trips into unfamiliar areas for decades: “Where the heck are we?” In an age when the tattered remains of long-outdated paper roadmaps were often the best navigational aid a driver had, the dream of an in-dash scrolling map seemed like something Q would build for James Bond to destroy.
And yet, in the mid-1980s, just such a device was designed and made available to the public. Dubbed Etak, the system was simultaneously far ahead of its time and doomed to failure by the constellation of global positioning satellites being assembled overhead as it was being rolled out. Given the constraints it was operating under, Etak worked very well, and even managed to introduce some of the features of modern GPS that we take for granted, such as searching for services and businesses. Here’s a little bit about how the system came to be and how it worked.
Continue reading “How Etak Paved The Way To Personal Navigation”
Anyone old enough to have driven before the GPS era probably wonders, as we do, how anyone ever found anything. Navigation back then meant outdated paper maps, long detours because of missed turns, and the far too frequent stops at dingy gas stations for the humiliation of asking for directions. It took forever sometimes, and though we got where we were going, it always seemed like there had to be a better way.
Indeed there was, but instead of waiting for the future and a constellation of satellites to guide the way, some clever folks in the early 1970s had a go at dead reckoning systems for car navigation. The video below shows one, called Cassette Navigation, in action. It consisted of a controller mounted under the dash and a modified cassette player. Special tapes, with spoken turn-by-turn instructions recorded for a specific route, were used. Each step was separated from the next by a tone, the length of which encoded the distance the car would cover before the next step needed to be played. The controller was hooked to the speedometer cable, and when the distance traveled corresponded to the tone length, the next instruction was played. There’s a long list of problems with this method, not least of which is no choice in road tunes while using it, but given the limitations at the time, it was pretty ingenious.
Dead reckoning is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from GPS navigation. If you’re still baffled by how that cloud of satellites points you to the nearest Waffle House at 3:00 AM, check out our GPS primer for the details.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Car Navigation Like It’s 1971”
In 1971, the United States Navy launched the Omega navigational system for submarines and surface ships. The system used radio frequencies and phase difference calculations to determine global position. A network of eight (VLF) transmitter sites spread around the globe made up the system, which required the cooperation of six other nations.
Omega’s fix accuracy was somewhere between one and two nautical miles. Her eight transmitter stations were positioned around the Earth such that any single point on the planet could receive a usable signal from at least five stations. All of the transmitters were synchronized to a Cesium clock and emitted signals on a time-shared schedule.
A ship’s receiving equipment performed navigation by comparing the phase difference between detected signals. This calculation was based around “lanes” that served to divvy up the distance between stations into equal divisions. A grid of these lanes formed by eight stations’ worth of overlapping signals provides intersecting lines of position (LOP) that give the sailor his fix.
In order for the lane numbers to have meaning, the sailor has to dial in his starting lane number in port based on the maps. He would then select the pair of stations nearest him, which were designated with the letters A to H. He would consult the skywave correction tables and make small adjustments for atmospheric conditions and other variances. Finally, he would set his lane number manually and set sail.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Omega Navigational System”