The next time you get lost while driving, savor the moment. Relish the splayed fold-out map across the dashboard, or the six-year-old coverless Rand McNally road atlas in your lap. Delight in trying to decipher directions scribbled in orange crayon on an Applebee's cocktail napkin. And appreciate receiving directions from a stranger telling you to go as far as the crow flies and then turn left at old-man Henderson's pecan orchard.
Cherish these episodes, for you may never get lost again due to the emergence of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices as standard features in new automobiles.
The satellite-based Global Positioning System navigation network was originally launched in 1978 by the United States Department of Defense for military purposes. Other commercial interests quickly recognized the potential of GPS, and by the mid-1980s, ultrahigh-tech tracking devices that communicate with the GPS became available on the free market.
Today the GPS consists of 24 solar-powered satellites. Each one laps the planet twice a day at speeds close to 7,000 miles per hour. The satellites broadcast constant low-power radio signals to GPS receivers on Earth, which are then used to precisely track a GPS device holder's exact location.
A GPS device calculates its location through four transmitted satellite signals. The GPS system calculates how far the device is from each satellite, based on how long it takes the receive the signal. And because the system interprets signals from four different satellite locations, it can then pinpoint a precise location for the transmitting device on Earth.
In car terms, GPS is referred to as an automotive navigation system. Most automakers are equipping selected newer models with these devices; otherwise, you can buy one at any car accessory shop.
Automotive navigation systems come in many styles and sizes. Most conveniently mount onto dashboards, allowing you to simultaneously drive and navigate. You can program the device's illuminated screen to display a detailed street-by-street map, a map featuring icons and text, or listed directions only.
Some devices even provide voice commands, telling you when and where to turn. Others offer additional options including restaurant suggestions, point-of-interest alerts, gas station locations, and routing tips.
Unlike cell phones, GPS reception is unaffected by hills, canyons, passing trucks, or grazing Holstein cows. But these systems do have blind spots when you're indoors or underground. So if you're inside a parking structure or a tunnel, you'll be left to your own directional wits until you're in the clear again.
If you decide you need a GPS, you'll find that there are now so many on the market that you should shop around before purchasing one. In addition to pricing, pay attention to what features are offered and whether you can mount the device yourself.
Also, be aware that GPS devices are popular targets for thieves, so choose your device accordingly.
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