Abandoned History: Oldsmobile's Guidestar Navigation System and Other Cartography (Part IV)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
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abandoned history oldsmobile s guidestar navigation system and other cartography

General Motors spent a lot of time and money in the development of TravTek GPS. As we learned in our last installment, the comprehensive (if clunky) navigation system used a touchscreen, had live traffic information, and could even make phone calls. Installed in 100 Toronados used in the greater Orlando area for an entire year, GM, AAA, and various government parties were eager to see just how useful the system was and if it was worthwhile. Narrator: It wasn’t. Let’s find out why.

After the TravTek experiment was over, the U.S. Department of Transportation spent some taxpayer dollars to produce eight different in-depth reports on the system’s general nature, usefulness, and driver acceptance. There was a good amount of data available, as over 4,000 people piloted the 100 Toronados during their tenure as rental and leased vehicles. There were seven different inquiries the government wanted to answer.

The questions were: Did the system work? Did drivers save time and avoid congestion via the live traffic data? Will drivers actually use TravTek? How effective was the voice guidance versus a silent map with turn-by-turn displays?

The remaining three questions were: Was TravTek actually safe to use? Could the system benefit travelers who don’t have the system in their car? And finally, would people actually be willing to pay for the TravTek package? The finalized main report on TravTek was published in January 1996 and is 89 pages long (PDF available here). We’ll summarize some of the highlights.

In the DoT report, it was found TravTek users took less time to plan their trips than conventional (paper map) methods, with a time of less than 1.5 minutes for a complete route plan. Using a map took about five minutes. Also faster was time spent en route, as the digital guidance meant directions were easily at hand. Drivers using maps took five minutes longer to complete an identical journey than with TravTek. Overall, trip planning time with TravTek was reduced by 75 percent, and driving time by 25 percent. 

Drivers found TravTek easier to use than a map, and suggested their in-car workload was lighter. However, there was no relationship found between TravTek usage and driver safety. Despite TravTek being an advanced whiz-bang technology, users did not find it difficult to use. On average, the system was mastered within three destinations. Unsurprisingly, younger users found the system easier to use than older ones. 

All drivers were given a questionnaire after their TravTek experience. The respondents generally felt TravTek did not interfere with their driving, and assisted them to pay more attention to driving via voice guidance and navigation features. Almost all users agreed the navigation would be useful for long trips.

Though the voice guidance was rudimentary, users much preferred the visual aids of the TravTek to be accompanied by voice guidance. That being said, most loved the system in any case. Asked to rate TravTek on a scale of 1 to 6 with 6 being the highest, the system (with map and directional guidance) was rated as a 5 when voice guidance was off. When it was turned on and all three features were used, the median rating was a 6.

Less favorably rated were the quality of the voiceover (which was pretty bad), and the touchscreen navigation interface. One could assume the touchscreen was rated more poorly since it was the most cutting edge part of the navigation process. Fast forward a couple decades, and the general public loves a touchscreen. Some things just take time.

Users were also asked to indicate how much they’d pay for TravTek. In general, the figure was about $1,050 ($2,339 adj.) for a projected 50 percent market penetration. That meant about half of people would be willing to purchase a TravTek at that price point. The dollar figure was slightly higher when the question was framed as an option on a brand new car, where users pegged TravTek’s value at $1,300 ($2,896 adj.).

That $1,300 figure was repeated when users were asked how much they’d pay to add the system as an aftermarket add-on. A low figure when one considered the extra systems, screens, and labor of installation of such a complicated system. Finally, the study found a projected 50 percent market penetration at $28 ($62 adj.) if TravTek were an add-on for a weekly car rental.

Those figures above identified a big problem: Costs. There was no way to make the TravTek profitable for that kind of money considering the data, private and state coordination, quantity of information, and mapping required. It was an enormous amount of effort just to cover the Orlando area, with lots of time-sensitive AAA information within the TravTek system. 

Keeping in mind the 100 test cars required their own 24/7 support center staffed with live service representatives, consider the staffing needs if TravTek were launched nationwide. Not to mention the ancillary systems and sensors required for each car, as well as the mandatory car phone connection. In 1992, a car phone would’ve cost over $1,000 to install, plus monthly service and per-minute fees. Data and systems requirements and the public’s lack of perceived value meant the TravTek never made it to full-scale production. 

But there was another, more defined issue as well. As mentioned in the last installment, the government was a roadblock to early '90s consumer GPS devices. The U.S. military was the owner and manager of satellite GPS, and kept the good technology for itself. Though the military allowed civil access to GPS from the 1980s, the civilian system was hampered and much less accurate than the military version. The reasoning was always a simple one: National security.

The poor accuracy was part of why the Toronados with TravTek needed a giant antenna and additional sensors at each wheel to help pinpoint the car’s location. This was the case until 1996, when President Clinton announced a new policy directive that would see U.S. GPS assets managed nationally. The announcement in 1996 was followed with two new civilian GPS signals to increase accuracy and reliability in 1998.

The military’s selective availability of GPS signals lasted until May of 2000, at which point civilian users had the same accuracy as the military. Since then, GPS has been considered a “global utility.” The GPS wall that came down in 1996 was great timing for General Motors, as in the interim between TravTek and the Clinton Administration they’d developed a new GPS system: Guidestar! We’ll pick up there next time.

[Images: GM, YouTube, YouTube]

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Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Writing things for TTAC since late 2016 from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find me on Twitter @CoreyLewis86, and I also contribute at Forbes Wheels.

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  • El scotto Another EBPosky, "EVs are Stoopid, prove to me water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius" article.It was never explained if the rural schools own the buses or if the school bus routes are contracted out. If the bus routes are contracted out, will Carpenter or Bluebird offer an electric school bus? Flexmatt never stated the range of brand-unspecified school bus. Will the min-mart be open at the end of the 179-mile drive? No cell coverage? Why doesn't the bus driver have an emergency sat phone?Two more problems Mr. Musk could solve.
  • RICK Long time Cadillac admirer with 89 Fleetwood Brougham deElegance and 93 Brougham, always liked Eldorado until downsized after 76. Those were the days. Sad to see what now wears Cadillac name.
  • Carsofchaos Bike lanes are in use what maybe 10 to 12 hours a day? The other periods of the day they aren't in use whatsoever. A bike can carry one person and a vehicle can carry multiple people. It's very simple math to figure out that a bike lane in no way shape or form will handle more people than cars will.The bigger issue is double parked delivery vehicles. They are often double parked and taking up lanes because there are cars parked on the curb. You combine that with a bike lane and pedestrians Crossing wherever they feel like it and it's a recipe for disaster. I think if we could just go back to two lanes of traffic things would flow much better. I started coming to the city in 2003 before a lot of these bike lanes were implemented and the traffic is definitely much worse now than it was back then. Sadly at this point I don't really think there is a solution but I can guarantee that congestion pricing will not fix this problem.
  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.