Navigation Systems – Another Wonderful Invention

To me, some of the greatest advancements of the past decade in the world of automobiles have been in the kinds of “infotainment” (which is a manufactured word combining “information” and “entertainment”), such as DVD entertainment systems and navigation systems. One of the more visible examples of this are factory-installed navigation systems. Generally, these systems consist of a 5 to 8 inch LCD display, a GPS receiver, and a map (stored on DVD or a hard drive). Some people deride these systems as nothing more than a status symbol; or as being too expensive (generally $1,500 to $2,000, when a handheld unit can be bought for less than $500). However, after having a factory navigation system in one of our vehicles, I’ve become a believer. When we purchased our most recent new vehicle, a 2005 Nissan Pathfinder, my wife was reluctant to get one with a factory-installed navigation system. In the past year and a half, she has also become a believer, for several reasons:

She is a stay at home mom and she and our son go to peoples’ houses for play dates. In many cases they haven’t been to the houses before, but navigation takes them right to the door.

On longer trips, even when I know how to get there, I program the destination into navigation (which takes 5 seconds if it’s an entry in the address book – and Nissan’s interface and joystick entry isn’t even all that intuitive) to keep tabs on how much further there is to go (distance and time).

The trip computer and information center are much easier to read and more robust when there is a color LCD display. There is a fuel economy function, tire pressure function, and two separate trip computers (time, distance, average speed) built in.
My father is in the auto sales industry, so he is much attuned to the trade-in and wholesale value of cars, and he has told me that most of the upfront cost for navigation in a new vehicle can be recovered at trade-in time. That is, his “black book” shows a $1,500 addition for navigation when he’s appraising a car.

There are definitely some negatives too. I’m aggravated about the outdated map CD that came with our 2005 Pathfinder – our house was built in 2002 and our street isn’t even in the database. I received an offer last month to buy an updated CD, but what’s to say that it will get everything that the 2005 edition missed? This isn’t a big deal for us, since we know where our house is, but if our destination is newer construction, it can be a hassle. Also, the system sometimes insistently recommends a route that we know is not the quickest way to arrive at our destination, and on occasions when we ignore its advice, the computer begrudgingly admits its error by shaving miles and time off of the ETA calculation.

I can understand why some people would not want a vehicle with a navigation system – people who rarely go to new addresses, or who want to save money at the time of their car purchase, or who are afraid of the potential expense to repair or replace yet another electronic device. Specific to BMW, many purchasers of new 3-Series BMWs skip navigation to avoid the hated iDrive.

However, from the manufacturer side, I cannot understand why automakers do not make factory-installed navigation systems at least available as an option in all of their vehicles, no matter the price of thecar/SUV/truck. I seriously doubt that it costs an automaker $1,500 to $2,000 to install a navigation system in an individual vehicle, so let’s assume that their cost is $500 (excluding engineering costs, which are likely minimal). That means that each navigation system installed adds $1,000 to $1,500 to the bottom line. Let’s say that a vehicle line that typically sells 100,000 units per year has navigation available for $1,500, and has a 10% take rate on the option. Assuming that the parts cost $500, that’s $1,000 per unit or $10 million in profit. It’s nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, there are buyers like me who would cross a model off of their lists without navigation available as an option. From the standpoint of buyer choice, I applaud Honda and Mazda for offering navigation in lower-priced cars like the Civic and Mazda3.

Depending on the level of integration an automaker would like to have for factory-installed units, it’s possible to add a GPS receiver and antenna beneath the dash, use a radio head unit with an LCD touch screen, and put the DVD drive or hard drive underneath the front passenger seat. I would imagine that this would not really require that much engineering and development expense for navigation to be available in nearly every car. If an automaker wanted to put its best foot forward, it could have a different dashboard layout that put the navigation LCD display at the top of the center stack, which may require some non-standardized parts between the navigation-equipped and non-navigation-equipped examples. The BMW 3-Series, Honda Accord, Lexus RX 350, and Nissan Pathfinder are among the vehicles that have a different dashboard shape when equipped with navigation, which makes for a nicer package and eliminates the need for the driver to remove his or her eyes from the road for an extended period.Navigation shouldn’t be standard in anything except for luxury brands like Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, and Cadillac. But it should be available as an option on most cars for consumers that want it, both for financial reasons for the manufacturers, and for the enhanced perception that it can bring to the brand. Next time you’re car shopping, check out a model with navigation and get some direction in your life, like your father always told you.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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