02:06 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: A Real-Life GPS Road Test

Fred Langa recently spent two weeks navigating through Europe using a GPS and a laptop. Here's how you can use this emerging technology for your next road trip.

Several months ago, in "Error-Free Business Travel" we discussed how Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are revolutionizing business (or pleasure) travel.

The basics of GPS technology can be stated in a single paragraph: You use a small mobile receiver and appropriate software to receive ultra-precise timing signals from a fleet of satellites originally used by the U.S. military, but now available to all users. The GPS software processes the satellite signals to calculate the exact location of the receiver, in latitude and longitude. (There's lots more detailed info available via the above link.)

A GPS unit's real power is unleashed when it's combined with a digital atlas to turn your raw latitude and longitude information into an easy-to-understand location drawn on a map; or better still, to display your position, speed, and direction on a moving street map that scrolls as you drive, giving you a bird's-eye view of your route. A properly equipped GPS unit also can generate instant, on-the-fly, turn-by-turn directions as you drive. Traveling with a street map-equipped GPS is like having an expert navigator in the seat beside you, letting you drive through an unfamiliar area with the accuracy and confidence of a local taxi driver. GPS can make missed turns--and missed meetings--a thing of the past.

GPS units come in all sizes, shapes, and costs. The general concepts that follow apply to all street-mapping GPS units, but the specific details are for one particular model, the Garmin V GPS, because it's one of the world's best-selling portable mapping GPS units. I especially like the Garmin V because it's small enough to be moved easily from vehicle to vehicle via a simple dashboard mount that requires no permanent installation or vehicle alteration. (It's great for temporary use in rental cars, for example.) Its compact size also makes it easy to take with you when you're on foot.

The Garmin V comes with any of several "base maps" permanently stored in the unit's firmware. The version most commonly sold in the U.S. includes basic information on the complete interstate highway system and the major numbered state highways connecting to the interstates. That's a lot, but note that the base map will not help you navigate the smaller, local streets of your city, town, or neighborhood. For that, Garmin's software arm, MapSource, offers "City Select" CDs that provide local street maps for most of North America. Using your PC, you choose one or more regional maps that cover the areas where you'll be driving, and use a special cable to dump the selected local maps into the GPS's user memory.

How much local road info can you load? It depends on how urbanized a region is and how much memory your GPS has (different GPS models come with different amounts of available memory, with about 20 Mbytes available in a basic Garmin V). For example, the entire, mostly rural state of Maine requires only about 1.5 Mbytes of memory; but the maps covering just the greater Boston area of eastern Massachusetts occupy more than 10 Mbytes of memory. Thus, depending on where you plan to drive, you have to be selective about which maps you load, up to your GPS's available memory limits.

The local and base map info work together seamlessly. If you've loaded a detailed map into your GPS's memory, but drive outside the region covered by the stored map, the GPS then reverts to the less-detailed base map. Later, if you re-enter a region for which you've loaded a local map, the unit automatically switches to the more-detailed local map.

But what happens when you drive outside even the base map area? This isn't a theoretical issue: Say you have a U.S.-based GPS, but want to travel in Europe, or vice versa? It can be done: I recently spent two weeks on a GPS-guided driving trip through Europe, totaling some 2,100 miles or 3,400 kilometers, and involving 15 border crossings between and among six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Liechtenstein). I used the GPS both for long-distance road navigation and for local, in-city routing; for finding restaurants, hotels, and gas stations; and for tracking down off-the-beaten path scenic spots, too.

Using a GPS let me do this far more easily than I could have using traditional paper maps or online routing services (such as the European route planners available from Michelin or Expedia). With a GPS, I could strike off into totally unfamiliar areas, sometimes even onto tiny rural roads way off the routes covered by the standard travel planners. Yet I always ended up where I wanted to be without going seriously astray--and (I know: it's a guy thing) without having to stop and ask for help. Traveling with the GPS was empowering, which is how technology should be.

OK, where's the hotel? Finding your way in an unfamiliar city (here, Zurich) can be daunting.

A GPS not only precisely shows you your destination (this map also shows Zurich), but also plots the most efficient route to get you there (purple line).

Here are the tech details of my trip, some or all of which may help you get the most from your GPS, no matter how far afield you travel:

Base Maps And Add-On Software
On its own, my U.S.-base map Garmin V GPS knew nothing of Europe except for crude, approximate political boundaries. But the Garmin software arm, MapSource, sells a CD with detailed European road data; I bought a copy of the CD.

The MapSource European software is much like that of the U.S.-oriented "City Select" CD, and includes most highways and roads, even down to small paths and dirt lanes, plus info on restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and more. However, unlike the software for U.S. roads, the MapSource European software isn't a routing product: You can't input start and end points, and have it automatically calculate a route for you. Initially, I thought this was going to be a showstopper.

But then I bought European routing software from Route 66. The Route 66 software generates not only point-to-point driving instructions, but also produces some wonderfully detailed maps that include basic topographical information missing from the "flat maps" of the Garmin products.

Garmin's MapSource software produces schematic maps that clearly show highways but lack topographic detail. This example map shows the area around Innsbruck, Austria. With MapSource, you'd never know the area was extremely mountainous.

Route 66's maps show not only the highway information, but also include basic elevation data. For example, this Route 66 map of the Innsbruck area, at the same approximate scale as the previous MapSource illustration, clearly shows the topography of the region. This makes the Route 66 maps somewhat better than MapSource for planning cross-country routing.

MapSource's schematic maps are superior for showing urban areas. Here, the MapSource view of downtown Innsbruck not only clearly shows the streets, but also shows restaurants, hotels, parking places, theaters, and so on.

Route 66's city maps are less detailed than MapSource's; although the Route 66 software can locate hotels, restaurants, and such via a search function, it doesn't automatically show these points of interest on its maps, a drawback in urban settings.

Although it initially seemed a hassle, having the two products turned out to have several silver linings. First, the differing map styles actually complement each other: I found I preferred the more schematic MapSource maps for areas where roads were dense or the driving complex. It's easier to see exactly what each road is, and how roads interconnect. But I preferred the Route 66 maps for planning cross-country driving, as those maps provided more contextual information about the landforms and surrounding countryside.

So, as I planned my trip, I used Route 66 to explore point-to-point driving options until I found routes I was happy with. I then manually adjusted and input the routes into the GPS via the MapSource software. This involves clicking to create waypoints along an intended route, and then loading the series of waypoints into the actual GPS unit: The GPS unit stitches the waypoints together to display a route.

Route 66 will automatically plot a point-to-point route, and display it as a purple line on a map. This map shows a short section of a route from the A13 autobahn in eastern Switzerland (left), crossing the Rhein river into Liechtenstein (right).

Here's the same route section, as manually input to the MapSource software. Each black square is a waypoint manually entered by clicking on the map. The software then stitches the individual waypoints together to create the route, shown in purple. The result is somewhat clearer than the Route 66 version, and also can be input directly into a GPS for convenient in-car use.

It would have been easier if the Garmin V could directly or automatically read the routes generated by the Route 66 software, but it's not that simple.

The lingua franca of the GPS hardware world is NMEA, a communications standard established by the National Marine Electronics Association in the U.S. (Years ago, maritime interests were among the first to embrace GPS technology.) Any GPS worth its salt should be able to handle NMEA input/output.

The Garmin V "speaks" NMEA, as well as other formats: It can convey its positioning data to any other device that uses the same formats. The Route 66 software, for example, will accept NMEA-format data from a GPS unit (via a PC's serial port) and display your live position on its maps. (We'll come back to this point in a moment.) But routing information can only be sent to a Garmin GPS in a proprietary Garmin format, which Route 66 doesn't support. Garmin's MapSource software does support the Garmin format: It also can read your position via a serial port connected to a GPS, and can send routing information back to the GPS using the special Garmin data format.

Thus, the only way to get Route 66-generated point-to-point routes into the Garmin GPS was to first convert the route to Garmin format via the MapSource software. And that leads to the second silver lining: Although this extra step was somewhat of a hassle, it had the advantage of letting me see each route in some detail before I drove it. This not only made me more familiar with the route, but also helped me avoid some software-generated errors.

Finding And Fixing Routing Errors
For example, I found that Route 66 sometimes fumbled when calculating routes through complex intersections. In one memorable instance, Route 66 planned a route that looked fine until I transferred it to the more schematic view of the MapSource software: Then, I saw that Route 66 had plotted the shortest possible route through a cloverleaf-type interchange--including an illegal turn across oncoming traffic! If I had relied solely on the Route 66 software, I would have encountered some moments of confusion behind the wheel when confronted with this impossible turn. But instead, I was able to see (and correct) the problem in advance when I transferred the route to MapSource.

The Route 66 software sometimes was a bit sloppy. Here, it plotted an illegal and dangerous route through a cloverleaf intersection in Interlaken, Switzerland.

Manually transferring the incorrect Route 66 route to the MapSource software let me correct routing errors. For example, here's the correct (and legal) route through the same intersection.

There were some other snags: Neither software package's maps were 100% accurate (no map ever is). For example, some turns and intersections were wrong due to construction changes that happened after the electronic-mapping software was finished. (There's a similar problem with paper maps, of course. It's hard to keep any road map totally current with road conditions.)

Ongoing construction detours also were an issue, although this varied hugely from country to country. For example, we were surprised to find that the Swiss highway department doesn't live up to the vaunted national reputation for efficiency. Although Swiss drivers were excellent, highway detours and temporary construction rerouting was often very poorly marked. In contrast, the Italian drivers often acted insane, but their roads--including detours and construction rerouting--were usually very clearly marked and easy to follow. French, Austrian, and especially the German roads also were excellent. But even when the signage was poor or detours and road changes threw us off our planned track, the GPS let us know when we went astray, and helped us navigate back to our planned route.

Some roads offered other special challenges, too: Bridges, tall buildings, long tunnels, and--in Alpine regions, concrete avalanche shields--can block the GPS signals, rendering the GPS temporarily useless. This creates a potential for confusion in cases where a required turn or route change happens immediately after exiting a tunnel or other signal obstruction: You may find yourself past the turn or route change before the GPS reacquires its bearings. What then?

Part of the answer is in familiarizing yourself with a route before you drive it--something the manual review and entry of the mapping data forced me to do. It's a good thing to do, anyway, simply to help avoid surprises.

But there's lots more you can do to help overcome the unanticipated snags that will occur in any long trip, too.

Handling Ad Hoc Routing, Detours, And Equipment Failure
Some of this may be overkill for short trips, or trips closer to home, or trips that involve routes only on major roads leading to heavily trafficked (and thus well-marked) destinations. But in my case--a two-week trip, six time zones from home, visiting many smaller, off-the-beaten-path destinations--I wanted the extra security of figurative belt and suspenders: I wanted to be able to continue the trip, as planned, even if the GPS were lost, broken, or stolen.

So, before I left, I printed out hard-copy versions of the planned routes. Both software packages make this easy, and I ended up with something like the American Automobile Association's famous "TripTik" strip maps, but entirely self-generated and customized to my own routes and preferences: a series of maps (at differing scales and resolutions, depending on how complex a given route section was), plus textual, turn-by-turn directions.

Route 66 automatically generates text directions, but I found it verbose in the extreme, with far more information than is needed to drive a route. So, I edited the automatically generated text to produce simpler, easier-to-follow directions I could print out and have handy in the car, if needed.

In fact, these text directions and maps did prove useful in those cases where long tunnels or other obstructions temporarily rendered the GPS mute: I'd dig out the custom paper maps, and follow along on paper until the GPS was back on line. (Incidentally, this highlights a major safety advantage of using a GPS: In normal operation, a GPS requires less attention--less taking your eyes off the road--than does a paper map. Every time I had to use a paper map, I had to reduce speed or even stop and pull over, an inconvenience.)

Aside from being clunky, paper maps also are static, and may not help a lot with routes that must be altered significantly (beyond range of the map) or for small roads not shown on the map. Normally, this is one area where a well-equipped GPS really shines: In a GPS with automatic routing, the unit will sense when you're off course, and automatically recalculate a new route for you. (This is exactly how a U.S.-base map Garmin V works when used in the U.S. with City Select local maps. Rerouting is fully automatic.) But because the MapSource European CDs weren't routing products, this ability wasn't available.

So, again in the belt and suspenders tradition, I also brought a laptop, and installed both the MapSource and Route 66 software on it. In several cases where something like a major construction detour forced a route change of such magnitude that I couldn't easily figure out a good alternate route via the small screen on the GPS unit or the printed custom maps, I connected the GPS to the laptop, fired up the Route 66 software, and let it plot and display a new route. Remember that the Garmin unit can "speak" NMEA to the Route 66 software: Thus, Route 66 could obtain location, direction, and speed data from the GPS, and show this on the laptop's screen, along with the route I should take to get to the next destination.

Although this arrangement is far less convenient than just using a compact, dash-mounted GPS unit alone, it gave me total freedom to drive any route I wanted or needed, at any time--even totally abandoning the preplanned routes, by choice or necessity.

Freedom Through Technology
As with many technoid topics, actually driving the GPS-guided route wasn't as difficult as spelling out all the separate steps may have made it seem. (And if the MapSource software had been a routing product, things would have been downright simple.) But even with the clumsier, two-product method, navigating the route was relatively easy--it was the planning of the route that was labor-intensive.

And even there, the Route 66 and MapSource software made it easier than it would have been using old-style paper maps, or even online routing services. In fact, given the complexity of the route, plus the fact that I wanted the flexibility to change routes at will, and not to have to stick to only the major highways, I think it would have been either extremely hard or even impossible to plan and drive the same trip without GPS.

I figured I'd return from this trip either totally believing in GPS technology, or equally firmly believing that it wasn't yet ready for prime time. I'm happy to say it's the former: I'd take another GPS-based trip of this sort without any qualms. In fact, as the GPS products improve, complex trip planning should only become simpler and easier.

In short, for travelers who need to visit locations away from major airports and the hearts of major cities, or who want a maximally flexible or complex itinerary, GPS is the only way to go.

What's your take? Have you used a GPS and mapping software for long trips? Do you have success--or horror!--stories to share? What online trip-planning services have you used? Where have you found GPS useful, or a drawback? Join in the discussions!

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