Automotive Navigation Systems

How far we’ve come with automotive navigation in a mere 35 years. With GPS navigation systems built into every mobile phone and standard equipment on many cars, now we can easily answer that timeless holiday travel season question—Are we there yet?—with accuracy down to the mile and minute. Here, Hagerty Historian Glenn Arlt remembers the early milestones in automotive navigation.


1981 Honda with Electro Gyro-cator navigation unit

Although automotive navigation appeared as aftermarket equipment all the way back to the turn of the century one of the first optional built-in automotive navigation system was the Honda/Alpine/Stanley Electric co-developed Electro Gyro-cator, introduced to Japan, in 1981. This “inertial navigation system” used a small helium gas gyroscope. Translucent maps had to be placed in the screen manually, and would scroll over a monochrome 6-inch cathode-ray tube/screen used for lighting and pinpointing purposes. The unit was optional on Honda Accord and Vigor cars for the equivalent of about $2,750—nearly 25 percent of the price of the actual cars themselves.


Etak Navigator

One of the early electronic systems that sold commercially in the United States was the Etak Navigator, a map-matching system using dead reckoning. Introduced in 1985, Etak was developed in California by Stan Honey and Atari founder, Nolan Bushnell. The unit used an Intel 8088 microprocessor and cassette tape drive for the mapping.

The main drawback, of course, was the fact that cassette tapes could not hold a lot of information. For just the Los Angeles area alone, for example, four cassettes were required and they needed to be changed to continue the use of the navigation system. Etak had address geocoding, converting the address into latitude/longitude, and the system self-corrected.

Technology-wise, the system was very advanced for the time and, naturally, quite expensive. Even with a $1,500 price tag—roughly 15 percent of the cost of a new luxury Chrysler in this era and about five percent of the cost of a 5-series BMW—Etak managed to sell several thousand units over several years. GM licensed the system (but never made any), as did Clarion (Japan), and Bosch’s Blaupunkt organization (Germany).


1987 Toyota CD-ROM navigation system

In 1987, Japan gave the automotive world two obscure but important advances in navigation technology. The Japan-only Toyota Crown Royal Saloon G was first with an in-dash CD-ROM mapped dead reckoning navigation system and first with color display (a cathode ray tube).


Mazda Eunos Cosmo navigation system

In 1990, Mazda of Japan introduced the first ever GPS system for automotive navigational use. Offered in the top-of-the-line, Wankel-powered Eunos Cosmos cars, and only available in gadget-loving Japan, Mazda’s navigation system was built into the actual car.  For the first time, your position on the road could be triangulated in real time from satellites in space. Truly the “space age” had finally arrived in the automobile.


GM’s GuideStar

The first company to introduce GPS navigation into general use, and in the United States, was Garmin in 1991.

Meanwhile, General Motors’ Oldsmobile Division and Delco Division had worked up a built-in GPS navigation system, ONIS, initially introduced in 1992 on Avis Rent A Car vehicles in Florida then in 1994 adding San Jose California as a location.  The system was officially added to Oldsmobile’s 88 series as a factory option for the 1995 model-year.  For retail sale, it was renamed GuideStar.  For GuideStar, initially only California and Las Vegas were mapped, but by the end of the year, more mapping “cartridges” were available for a wider area, with plans for the entire US by the end of 1996.  With the California cartridge,, the option cost $1995, about 10% of the base price of the car. This was a significant drop in cost in just a decade.  Additional cartridges were available as the areas were mapped, for extra cost.


Alpine CVA-1005

In 1997, the Japanese company Alpine introduced their version of a pop-out CD-ROM (stored map) navigation system which used GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites.  Each CD disc containing mapping data only covered a few states.   This meant that any car buyer could add the system to his or her car if they upgraded to a premium Alpine sound system at the same time.


Early Garmin StreetPilot

By 1998, Garmin introduced their first portable StreetPilot GPS navigation system for automotive use.  It had a black and white screen, and used cartridges with mapping.  One cartridge could cover, for example, the entire Atlanta area.   This was a huge advance, because now “anyone” could buy a GPS navigation system – if they could afford it.  List price was initially about $550.  Less than 3% of a luxury Chrysler base price, and less than 1.5% of the BMW 528i base price.  Best of all, it could be moved from car to car, so people could actually pack it, fly to a location and use it in rental cars – or swap it from their sports car (after the weekend jaunt sans kids) into the family truckster station wagon (for the family vacation) at will.