CITY SMART: How to thrive in the urban environment of Southern California. : Car’s Computer Map Guides You With Voice That Never Nags


Toss out those origami road maps that never got you from the rental car lot to your hotel or to that popular tourist spot.

The rental car of the future is here, and will guide you from Point A to Point B with dead-on accuracy and an electronic voice that never nags you to pull over and ask for directions.

This new fleet of autos is designed to guide even the most navigationally challenged traveler with a satellite tracking system that beams computerized maps onto a four-inch video screen inside the car.


Dubbed “Never Lost,” “PathMaster,” “GuideStar” and “Satellite Guidance,” these electronic mapping systems are just the next phase in cyber-commuting.

Avis and Hertz introduced the system in 1994 in a handful of cars in a few cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. National jumped on board this year with computer-equipped Cadillacs in Detroit and Atlanta. The cars cost an additional $5 a day.

Car makers are also expected to install the devices for sale in the retail market; two Oldsmobile models already sport the new system.

The companies use the same navigational system, either by state or region. Two Silicon Valley companies developed the mapping system and its software, while Rockwell International supplied the hardware.

The system relies on a small computer in the trunk and satellites that pinpoint the car’s location. The satellites, known as a global positioning system, were developed for the military to help U.S. troops find their way in remote places, said Ed Comai, national sales manager for Rockwell.

“This is an extremely user-friendly vehicle,” said Hertz spokesman Joe Russo. “Anybody who could have fun with a video game could enjoy this.”


I’d be the judge of that. So I rented my own smart car to tour the labyrinthine grid work of L.A.

The computer’s first job was to get me from Los Angeles International Airport to West L.A. using surface streets.

When the ignition is turned on, the computer--mounted on a flexible wire near the radio--asks you to choose where you want to go: an address, intersection, point of interest, or the nearest freeway on-ramp. You can even ask for the nearest ATM, amusement park or grocery store.

The computer will ask if you want the fastest route, or a route with no freeways or all freeways. A map on the screen then shows your destined trail glowing in purple and your car pictured as a green triangle.

“Please proceed to the highlighted route,” a male computerized voice says.

But I had no clue how to get to the beginning of that highlighted route from the rental car parking lot.

Should I turn left or right to get to Airport Boulevard?

I turned left. I was lost. But the computer didn’t beep at me or hurl insults as many co-pilots might have done. Instead, it patiently let me drive two incorrect blocks--all the while highlighting where I was supposed to be--until a small sign flashed on the screen: “Please proceed to the route or press enter for a new route.”


Pressing “Enter” gets you a new map based on where you are.

During the ride, the computer updates directions on the display. The map disappears, although it can be recalled, and the name of the next street where you should turn appears above a bright yellow arrow pointing the way and telling the distance to that street.

About two-tenths of a mile from a turn, the voice gives a gentle warning-- “Right turn ahead”-- and a chime sounds as the turn is executed.

Once you turn, the new street takes the center of the screen and the green-colored triangle (you) courses up that road to your next turn off.

Despite intentionally getting lost dozens of times on small, out-of-the-way streets I’d never heard of, the computer always got me where I wanted to go--and made sure I knew it.

I eventually learned to trust the information it was giving me, including the final word: “You have arrived at your destination.”