Is Your Car’s GPS Really 50 Years Old?

It’s understandable to think of your car’s GPS (or the GPS in your smartphone) as a 21st century innovation. If you do, it may come as a surprise to know that in this year of 2019, during which we celebrate a number of golden anniversaries (the Apollo 11 moon landing, Woodstock, the Miracle Mets, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, etc.), we can also include the 50th anniversary of the world’s first automobile navigation guidance system. You’ve probably never heard of it, because it didn’t get much beyond the experimental prototype stage. But it shows how even the most impressive, state-of-the-art technology we have today can often trace its lineage to a time period far earlier than some of us (like me) might have expected.

The story: In the mid-1960s, a concept called DAIR (Driver Aided Information and Routing System) was researched in the United States by General Motors, with the idea of using arrays of roadbed magnets, arranged in binary code, to communicate location to passing vehicles. After limited development and testing, DAIR was scrapped, to be replaced by what was considered to be a more practical idea.

GM, working with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, then pursued ERGS (Experimental Route Guidance System), as a means to disperse and control various traffic patterns. Research began in 1966, and was later presented in a paper by engineers William G. Trabold (GM Research Laboratories) and Thomas A. Prewitt (GM Delco Radio Division).In September of 1968, GM released an announcement (for company personnel only) explaining the new guidance system, and, in January of 1969, the car manufacturer was ready to officially announce the new guidance system to the general public, via the print ad above, running in consumer magazines throughout the rest of the year.

Without getting bogged down in tech talk (in which I’m not especially fluent), here’s basically how ERGS was to work: Upon beginning a journey, a driver would dial in a destination code using a thumbwheel switch on a dashboard device, and would then begin heading in that general direction. A two-way antenna system secured under the road pavement at each intersection would read where the vehicle is headed. A roadside computer at the intersection would receive a radio signal from the car’s device, process the information, and then signal back a set of directions, to be displayed on the dashboard receiver console.

According to a 1988 report by the Canada Ministry of Transportation, “Although technically sound, ERGS required expensive roadside infrastructure, and the development effort was terminated by Congressional mandate in 1970 following limited testing of various equipment modules. However, similar approaches have been carried through further stages of development and testing and are still under active consideration in England, Japan and West Germany.”

Of course, none of the systems developed throughout the 1970s and ’80s used satellites or digital technology, but at least the concept of providing instant directions to a driver while en route to a given destination was being taken seriously.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when companies like Mitsubishi and Magellan began to claim their respective developments as the first GP navigation systems for cars. In 1995, Oldsmobile introduced GuideStar, the first such system available in a production car, but it would be another few years until improved GPS systems would become more widespread in the marketplace. Today, of course, it has become invaluable to most drivers entering “uncharted” territory.

So, while we have satellites to thank for getting us to unfamiliar destinations today (remember maps?), we can still nod to those innovative thinkers from fifty years ago who did the best they could with the technology they had at the time.  As for me and my own progress with using today’s navigational technology, I need to sign off for a while so I can practice with my new sextant.

Until next time…