THE LATEST CAR NAVIGATION systems on sale now in Japan won't actually drive you home, but they're getting close. They already make pretty good backseat drivers. Just tell them where you want to go, and a map--detailed right down to the right house--appears to show where you are, your destination and the best route.
The maps, on LCDscreens, will even switch to a 3-D format and show as well as tell you ("take the next left, please") such things as where to turn to get out of the parking lot.
These navigational computers--maptops?--are big in Japan, where 1.5 million units will be sold this year at prices of $1,000 to $3,000. But the U.S. market has been nonexistent thus far, with annual sales of only about 100,000 units.
That may be about to change: New systems headed for U.S. shores have Web-ready features that could catch on with some gadget-loving drivers. Using a cellular linkup, they can access information such as where the nearest Italian restaurant or ATM is and also display a picture of it. Future versions will even make reservations.
The voice recognition works more than 90% of the time, say such maptop makers as Alpine and Matsushita. The newest models displayed at Japan's big electronics show last month all correctly understood this scribe's home address and displayed the exact location of his house. Yikes! They even showed where traffic jams clogged the way home, albeit so far the devices can "hear" only addresses and a few simple instructions.
Entry-level systems consist of a CD-ROM-based map, a screen and a receiver for the GPS (global positioning satellite) system. Pricier versions use more detailed, DVD-based maps and voice recognition and offer Internet access.
Alpine Electronics sold the first navigators in America in 1997. It expects North America to become the world's largest market in five or six years, says Steven Crawford, head of international marketing. He projects sales of 600,000 navigators in the U.S. and Canada in 2001, and sales of 2.7 million a year by 2005. "Most people think they don't need one, but when they experience the ease of it, they won't be able to live without one," he says.
Pioneer Electronics has also decided to take the plunge by year-end with a $2,000 model. Matsushita's Panasonic brand is still testing and developing maps in preparation for its U.S. venture, officials say.
That will take some doing. Japan was a natural market because its roadways are extremely convoluted and prone to traffic jams. In the U.S., drivers can usually speed down the highway. In Japan, many people use their navigators as TV sets or DVD players as they wait in traffic. Laws will likely prevent that in the U.S., but, in a pinch, the screen can be moved to the backseat and used to tranquilize the kids.
Alpine is working on features with the U.S. market in mind. One is a secret alarm button that calls the cops when you're being carjacked, giving them your exact location. If real-time road conditions become available, as in Japan, these backseat drivers will also warn you of accidents ahead and suggest alternate routes. And they can call the nearest AAA tow truck if you have a flat tire in the middle of Arizona. But despite their hefty price tag, current versions won't change the tire for you.