What Was The First Commercial In-Car Electronic Navigation System?
Answer: The Etak Navigator
The U.S. government began working on the GPS satellite network in the 1970s as a way to improve and refine military navigation systems. Despite progress on the project, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the first satellites went up and not until the early 1990s that the last of the many geo-synchronous satellites were put into place.
Yet back in the 1980s if you had the inclination and money to spend on the project, you could install a full digital electronic in-car navigation system a full decade before the first commercial in-car GPS systems would arrive on the market (let alone become commonplace and affordable).
Despite the infancy of personal computers in general and the limited amount of processing power that could be harnessed by an in-car computer as a result, multiple companies across the world worked throughout the earlier 1980s on creating in-car navigation systems long before there was even a chance of connecting them to a satellite positioning network. The most successful and the most thoroughly realized of these systems was the Etak Navigator, a very clever in-car navigation system created by engineer Stan Honey and funded by Nolan Bushnell (best known for founding Atari, Inc.).
Unlike a myriad of other systems that just missed the mark, the Etak Navigator was a comprehensive system that combined in-car data (stored on cassette tapes) and in-car tracking (via digital compass to track direction and magnetic sensors in the wheel wells combined with magnetic strips installed on the wheel rims to track distance traveled) with a digital display to create an offline equivalent of the now ubiquitous GPS unit.
The system had limitations to be sure (the City of Los Angeles, for example, was big enough to require multiple cassette tapes that the driver had to manually swap in order to complete a journey across the city with real-time instructions and the very maps that went into the system all had to be manually digitized by the Etak company as digitized maps were unheard of in the early 1980s), but the system worked remarkably well for what it was. So well, in fact, that when the system was demoed to both technology writers and potential buyers alike, they almost universally thought it was a bit of computer-based trickery and not a real mapping system. Unlike the present where we have a more than passing familiarity with the concept of digital maps, GPS, and so on, back then the concept was so novel and the delivery so effective that people couldn’t believe it was really giving them directions in real time.
Although Etak is long gone, the map digitizing methods and system it pioneered live on both in practice and spirit right into the present; in fact what was the Etak company was absorbed by Tele Atlas, a subsidiary of the massive GPS company TomTom.
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