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

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

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. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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7 of 15 comments
  • AZFelix AZFelix on Nov 17, 2023

    The Trofeo's design always struck me as being inspired by Darth Vader's car from the Duel at Death Star Racing Set:


    Perhaps 'A New Hope' would have had a different ending if Vader had used TravTek GPS while chasing Luke's X-wing.

  • Mike Beranek Mike Beranek on Nov 20, 2023

    As a land surveyor I clearly remember the GPS changes in the '90's. Suddenly, we could use differential GPS and get accuracy down to a couple of hundredths. It forever altered the industry.

    • See 2 previous
    • Mike Beranek Mike Beranek on Dec 18, 2023

      Art, the key to getting tight elevations is letting the GPS receiver just sit and cook on a tripod for 30-45 minutes. Average out the error over tens of millions of observations. And no more playing leapfrog doing level circuits.

  • Alan I think its the far left that want to ban fossil fuel powered vehicles. The left can mean many things. So don't place all into the "Left" if they don't believe in your right wing agenda.If one looks at a breakdown of political beliefs you'll find approximately 20% are dedicated wackos on the right, sort of Trumpian types. The same occurs on the left 20% are wackos, I call them Green types.This leaves the middle 60% shaking their heads at the nonsense, BS, misinformation, lies, etc that is spruiked by the extremes of both sides of politics.Australia is lucky in some respects as we have multiple political parties. The Labour Party (Dem equiv) don't have the extreme left as they migrate to the Greens. The Liberal Party (GOP equiv) don't have such luxury and has been infiltrated by right wing knobs.So, you'll find many Dems might have more conservative views than those that are GOP and vice versa.Stop with this nonsense.I don't envisage a ban on fossil fuel powered vehicles in Connecticut as this will not fit in with the economic development of the State. There will be changes of course.This is nothing but a piece of red meat.
  • Matt Posky That's a bummer. At this point, I would very much like to see them just sitting around talking about cars together. May's The Reassembler and Oh Cook were both enjoyable and consisted of little more than him chatting with the production crew. Clarkson's Farm is excellent and usually includes him just making jokes and political points as he goes about the day with a limited number of staged events. Hammond's Workshop has also been pretty good vs most other automotive-related programming because of his personality. Nobody expects them to drive trucks through brick walls or pretend to blow each other up anymore. Why they haven't transitioned over the the Jay Leno's Garage way of doing things is beyond me. Leno has arguably done some of is best work since retiring from Late Night. I'm sure the lads could muster up a few hours per month to get together at a museum or garage to chat about cars and flirt with each other.
  • Alan I would wait and see what the 250 Series offers from a value for money perspective. I do think the Prado will be a better vehicle overall and lots cheaper.I'm not a Toyota fan let alone a Lexus fan as they are overpriced in the bang for buck department.Let's wait and see what the next Patrol will be.
  • Kwi65728132 "Safety wonks at the federal level claim the starter solenoid in these rigs could be contaminated with water if operated in abnormally wet conditions like as a flooded road."Don't drive on flooded roads or "Turn around, don't down"It sounds like just plain common sense to not submerge your fancy vehicle in a body of standing water, unless you're doing it for the insurance money because you bought more car than your subprime credit rating can afford to pay for.