The first touchscreen navigation system started with 100 Oldsmobile Toronados in Florida

The first touchscreen navigation system started with 100 Oldsmobile Toronados in Florida

1992 Oldsmobile Toronado in White

Image: General Motors

When did you get your first GPS or your first car with built-in navigation? I vaguely remember my dad getting a standalone Garmin unit for Christmas around 2007. A few years later, smartphones would make this feature ubiquitous.

But the history of in-car navigation actually dates back decades, and early attempts didn’t even rely on computers or LCD screens for service. About 10 years later Honda’s Electro Gyrocator introduces Japanese drivers to the feature, GM tested a system we’d recognize as a more traditional navigation system through a partnership with Avis, in modified Oldsmobile Toronados offered for rental in the Orlando area. It was called TravTek, and it’s both super impressive and kind of hilarious.

TravTek appeared on the scene in 1992 and was integrated into 100 Toronados – 75 of them reserved for the Avis fleet and the rest loaned to “local high-mileage drivers”, according to IEEE Explorer. The Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation were also involved, so you’d think they’d want all the data they could get their hands on.

A trip computer installed in the trunk provided navigation, and it was routed to a 6-inch touchscreen with voice synthesis to announce turns and directions. It’s very Microsoft Sam, very War gamesand yet he’s actually pretty good at tell you everything you need to know, as long as you can understand his stilted and jumbled delivery. This short report by a 1992 episode Automotive TV shows the process of setting a destination:

It’s not much different from modern systems, except that TravTek didn’t allow you to enter addresses. Instead, you had to choose from a list of pre-selected streets, all within a 1,200 square mile area of ​​central Florida. Yet in this part of the Sunshine State, TravTek was imbued with a wealth of knowledge beyond just maps. As FranklyOlds Explain :

Data from traffic lights, traffic cameras along roads, emergency vehicles, construction reports and other TravTek cars were fed into the computer continuously from a AAA traffic management center in Orlando. Traffic and rerouting information only became widely available on modern vehicles with the development of XM Nav Traffic, an RDS-based terrestrial system, in 2004.

The vehicle’s location was pinpointed using a built-in magnetic compass, sensors in the car’s wheels that measured the distance traveled, and a satellite that transmitted its signal to a large antenna on the deck lid back.

Interestingly, TravTek could not rely solely on GPS to pinpoint the location of the vehicle, so the additional wheel sensors and compass had to be needed to fill in the data gaps. By the way, “big” is an understated way to describe this trunk lid antenna. Here’s a good view of it protruding prominently above the passenger side tail light:

Trunk lid GPS antenna on the back of a 1992 Oldsmobile Toronado

What it did, however, must have seemed pretty incredible 30 years ago. Points of interest, such as hotels, were preloaded into the system. You had access to not only a hotel’s name and address, but also its rating, by AAA, and useful information like whether it allowed smoking or having pets, or whether it had a swimming pool. You can even dial the reception number directly from the screen, although the hands-free loudspeakers in the cabin are still a solution. You had to get yourself a good old fashioned car phone receiver for all your questions.

When it came time to hit the road, you could choose your preference for the fastest route, or one that avoided toll roads or highways, just like you always can in Google Maps. For a more in-depth idea of ​​how TravTek worked in practice, check out this longer report that was released in Australia Beyond 2000 docuseries:

So far, we haven’t discussed TravTek’s limitations much, and being 30 years old, you can imagine it had a few. It becomes clear at the 3:27 mark in the video above. The driver makes a mistake – turning right instead of turning right – and finds himself misguided from the route planned by TravTek.

Modern GPS systems would automatically redirect you within seconds, but with TravTek you had to initiate this process by pressing a button on the steering wheel labeled “New Route”. Anticipating that users might panic at such times, TravTek recommended that you press an on-screen button labeled “Help” when you get lost. This would put you in touch by phone with AAA’s support staff, who had a view of your vehicle data and could walk you through the rerouting process.

No, none of this was perfect. But for 1992 it was a very promising start and GM hoped to bring the service to market within the next few years. When it hit the market in time for the 1995 model year, the system was called Guidestar and could be had as an option on the Eighty Eight, LSS and Bravada for $2,000.

Guidestar’s GPS covered up to 17 states, but was not as comprehensive as TravTek’s implementation. It lacked a touchscreen and live traffic updates, for example, and took the form of a standalone unit mounted outside the dashboard. In this way, it looked more like the precursor to a Garmin or TomTom unit than the built-in navigation systems that would start to proliferate in the mid-2000s – although it still required a computer in the trunk for all of its processing. What a long way, indeed.

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