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Directions

Learn how GPS navigation can make driving directions easier.

The GPS navigation network relies on solar-powered satellites orbiting Earth. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
The GPS navigation network relies on solar-powered satellites orbiting Earth.

Directions from printed maps are rapidly becoming a thing of a past, as new technology in the form of satellite navigation and Internet map creation has helped to bring driving navigation into the 21st century. The days of drivers using the Thomas Guides are becoming a thing of the past.

Many drivers use programs like MapQuest and Google Maps to get driving directions. These programs can generate maps between any two points and allow the user to manipulate the maps to their exact specifications. For instance, routes can be adjusted to include other points of interest or to avoid highways.

While Internet mapping programs have revolutionized paper directions, satellite technology allows users to get directions on the go using a Global Positioning System (GPS). Once available only to government and scientific organizations, GPS technology allows users to get updated maps while driving and to change their route from within their vehicle without stopping to generate new directions.

The Global Positioning Network

The GPS navigation network originated from research conducted by the U.S. Military and associated scientific organizations in the 1970s and 80s. The GPS system uses a network of 24 solar-powered satellites orbiting the Earth. The satellites emit a constant low power radio signal that can be received from the surface according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a GPS system, a user can detect the radio signals emanating from orbiting satellites. By using signals from multiple satellites, the receiver can calculate its precise location using triangulation of latitude, longitude and altitude.

Handheld GPS systems began to emerge on the U.S. market in the mid-1990s and, shortly thereafter, some car manufacturers began to offer built-in GPS technology as a factory option. Personal GPS systems use the signals received from satellites in conjunction with maps installed in the systems processor to map the location of the unit and to show relevant features in the surrounding area, like roads, parks, water features and points of interest.

Some GPS devices are specifically designed for automotive use, using a system to mount the device to the inside of the car. Automotive GPS devices are designed to allow drivers to navigate while driving, without stopping to read the navigation device. There are many companies offering GPS devices for personal use, and each device offers different features.

Risks of GPS Navigation

While GPS systems are more convenient and more adaptable than using printed maps and other direction systems, there are also risks associated with using GPS systems. GPS technology depends on satellite reception, and if satellites are unavailable because of obstructions or inclement weather, the device may not function properly.

In addition, power is required for the GPS unit to function. Many GPS units offer rechargeable batteries and allow users to replace batteries if the unit stops functioning. If a power malfunction occurs while driving, the GPS system may also stop working, leaving drivers lost.

To avoid the risks of GPS failure or malfunction, it is recommended that drivers keep a detailed road map in the vehicle in case of device failure. Some GPS providers offer 24-hour telephone service to drivers in case a navigation unit malfunctions while in use.

GPS Types and Features

Before purchasing a GPS device, consumers should take time to consider the various features offered by different GPS models. Some drivers choose to use their cell phones or handheld computers in place of buying a separate GPS system, as many mobile devices now offer GPS navigation. When purchasing a stand-alone GPS system, there are numerous options to choose from.

Aftermarket GPS modules, which can be purchased from a variety of vendors and are the most popular type of GPS system, can cost between $100 and $700, depending on the included features. Some of the most common features include:

  • Text to Speech. The device provides audio directions to accompany the visual display, preventing drivers from having to pay attention to the GPS screen for direction cues.
  • Traffic Information. The device provides updates on traffic conditions along the programmed route.
  • Widescreen Format. The standard models generally have screen sizes between 3 and 4.5 inches. Widescreen models, with screens as large as 10 inches, offer better visibility and more touch screen options.
  • Routing Function. The device allows users to change the route given for a particular request. This function can allow drivers to find a more scenic route, to coincide with some point of interest, or to avoid road closures and other traffic issues.


There are a variety of other features that are included on some GPS systems. For example, Bluetooth technology allows drivers to use the GPS module with their cell phone to make hands-free calls while driving, and to load and play music through the GPS system.

Another type of satellite navigation system, called a Telematics System, uses a combination of cellular technology and satellite technology to provide navigation services. Drivers can use the device to make a wireless call to a help center where they can receive assistance with the device, directions or in emergency situations. Telematics systems are built in to vehicles and are generally available only as factory or dealer installations. For instance, General Motors offers the OnStar System on some of its vehicles, which provides navigation and 24-hour assistance to drivers.

GPS Brands

The aftermarket GPS market is growing and a number of companies are now offering handheld GPS units. Before deciding to purchase a GPS system, customers should decide what features are most important and spend time reviewing the features and models offered by different companies. Some of the most popular GPS manufacturers in the United States are:

  • Garmin is one of the leading manufacturers and distributors of GPS systems in the United States. Garmin offers GPS models ranging from basic automotive navigation units to wristwatches with built-in GPS systems.
  • Magellan is another leader in the personal GPS industry, and offers a range of GPS models from basic to advanced GPS with built-in telephone and music capability.
  • TomTom is another popular GPS company, offering a variety of handheld and vehicle-mounted GPS modules.

GPS Reviews

There are a number of organizations that have reviewed the GPS systems on the market to help consumers decide which to purchase, including the following:

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