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The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Garmin StreetPilot GPS Navigation System

The Garmin StreetPilot helped destroy the market for street atlases, but it might have saved a few marriages in the process

3 min read
Photo of the Garmin StreetPilot GPS
The Way Forward: Introduced in 1998 and priced at US $400, the Garmin StreetPilot was one of the first practical and affordable GPS-based road navigation devices.
Photo: Garmin

If you were born before 1980, there was a widespread expectation that you would learn how to read a road map sometime in your late teens. If you didn’t know how to get where you were going before you got behind the wheel of a car, you weren’t going to get there.

There were some exceptions. If you didn’t know how to get where you were going, you could always stop along the way and ask for directions. Alternatively, if you had someone riding in the passenger seat, you could always prevail upon her to do map duty.

Nevertheless, marriages sometimes ended because those conditions could not always be met. After Garmin? Not so much. Garmin and its competitors also darn near wiped out the market for road atlases.

The road to such sweeping social change began at the U.S. Department of Defense. In the early 1970s, the DoD began creating the Global Positioning System (GPS) but reserved use for itself until 1983. That year, the federal government made it available for consumer applications—albeit with degraded resolution. In 1996 the United States designated GPS a dual-use technology; as a practical matter that meant commercial manufacturers would finally get the same, higher-resolution readings as government agencies and the military.

Various manufacturers began making GPS systems for the commercial navigation market starting in the late 1980s, but between the reduced resolution available then and the initially high cost of the technology, they didn’t exactly fly off store shelves. For example, Magellan Navigation introduced the first handheld commercial GPS navigator, the NAV 1000, in 1989. Those units were appreciated by some users, mostly outdoorsmen, but few pedestrians saw the need for a brick-size product that cost nearly $3,000 that would tell them what street they were on, along with their coordinates down to degree, minute, and second.

Automotive navigation seemed a wider application. Starting in the early 1990s, several automakers began offering GPS navigation systems but, with the higher resolution readings still unavailable then, positional accuracy wasn’t so good. And of course, the still-high cost of GPS technology meant that the units were typically available in luxury car models that sold in fewer numbers.

By 1998, GPS costs had dropped significantly, however, and Garmin was in as good a position as any company to capitalize. Founded in 1989 and originally known as ProNav, the company had experience building GPS-based directional systems for the U.S. Army. Garmin was able to produce a portable model, at a consumer-friendly price (roughly $400), that could be loaded with accurate digital street maps.

The StreetPilot, the company’s first product for the consumer market, was roughly 8 by 17 by 5.5 centimeters (or about 3 by 7 by 2 inches) and weighed just over a pound, including six AA batteries. It had a 240- by 160-pixel black-and-white LED screen (Garmin would release a model with a color screen the following year).

It had a 12 parallel-channel GPS receiver, and offered positional accuracy of no worse than 15 meters (49 feet), and as good as 1 to 5 meters (3 to 15 feet) with differential GPS, in which satellite signals are supplemented with a signal from a terrestrial, fixed-base station.

The StreetPilot came loaded with a map showing interstate, U.S., and state highways, plus rivers and lakes in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and main arterial streets in major metropolitan areas. Users could get CD-ROMs with local map data, including surface streets and points of interest, such as gas stations and restaurants, and transfer the data to dedicated memory cartridges (8 or 16 megabytes) that plugged into the units. Users could enter a destination address and the StreetPilot would guide them along the most direct route. In short, the StreetPilot provided a stripped-down version, without the real-time traffic updates, of what you can get nowadays in a free smartphone app. Still, it was a revelation at the time.

The successor model, the StreetPilot III in 2002, had a 3.85-inch diagonal, 305- by 160-pixel color screen and added voice prompts.

Garmin and its competitors not only changed the way people drove, they came close to making map reading pointless for most people. And they might have saved a few marriages in the process.

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Who Actually Owns Tesla’s Data?

The company, says the company—but other interpretations persist

4 min read
Nighttime photograph of a man in a car at an outdoor Tesla charging lot.

A Tesla user charges his Model S in Burbank, Calif.

Philip Cheung/The New York Times

On 29 September 2020, a masked man entered a branch of the Wells Fargo bank in Washington, D.C., and handed the teller a note: “This is a robbery. Act calm give me all hundreds.” The teller complied. The man then fled the bank and jumped into a gray Tesla Model S. This was one of three bank robberies the man attempted the same day.

When FBI agents began investigating, they reviewed Washington, D.C.’s District Department of Transportation camera footage, and spotted a Tesla matching the getaway vehicle’s description. The license plate on that car showed that it was registered to Exelorate Enterprises LLC, the parent company of Steer EV—a D.C.-based monthly vehicle-subscription service.

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Tesla’s Autopilot Depends on a Deluge of Data

But can a fire-hose approach solve self-driving’s biggest problems?

5 min read
Close-up of the Autopilot screen in a Tesla

In 2019, Elon Musk stood up at a Tesla day devoted to automated driving and said, “Essentially everyone’s training the network all the time, is what it amounts to. Whether Autopilot’s on or off, the network is being trained.”

Tesla’s suite of assistive and semi-autonomous technologies, collectively known as Autopilot, is among the most widely deployed—and undeniably the most controversial—driver-assistance systems on the road today. While many drivers love it, using it for a combined total of more than 5 billion kilometers, the technology has been involved in hundreds of crashes, some of them fatal, and is currently the subject of a comprehensive investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Free On-Demand Webinars on Data Acquisition Boards and Their Applications

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1 min read

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