Road Warrior: Techniques

Global positioning systems can be a godsend for road warriors. But they're only as good as the person using them

You know the scenario: You're desperately close to missing an important appointment. You're in a new town, on strange roads, in a rented car. Sure, you have directions. But you've gone off course, and your point of reference disappeared somewhere back around the airport exit sign.

What if I told you that I know a place where you'll never feel lost again? Where all roads lead to your destination and all exit ramps are marked so clearly they shout out "Take me!" as you cruise along a foreign highway? There is such a place. And for a few extra bucks--as little as $5 a day--it's yours for the asking.

Once a plaything of the wealthy and the militaristic, global positioning systems (GPSs) have made their way into the automobile market. Car navigational systems are based on two components: a network of 24 satellites in space that pinpoint your exact location as you're driving (the global-positioning part) and databases that house high-resolution maps detailing the spatial coordinates of entire cities. It is those two components working together that enable the system to prompt you with directions as you head toward your destination.

I have to admit I was dubious. But on a trip to San Francisco in which I knew I'd be doing a lot of driving, I decided to give the new navigation system a try. Most of the major car-rental companies are trying out the systems, so when I called to reserve a car at Hertz, I asked for one equipped with its NeverLost system. Avis--less cleverly but descriptively enough--calls its the Avis Satellite Guidance system, and National has its Navigator rentals.

For the most part, Hertz is installing the NeverLosts in its larger Ford vehicles. The system--a four-inch-square LCD screen posted on a bendable shaft--bounds up from the front floor, just to the right of the steering wheel. You can twist the thing to program the system, to read the screen, and to try to avoid the glare bouncing off the screen.

My plan is to give myself over entirely to NeverLost. I've brought no maps, no backup to get me where I need to go; my only supplies are a cellular phone and a few street addresses. Thus unencumbered, I pick up my first car at the San Francisco International Airport--a big blue Lincoln Town Car. The GPS gleams. It glistens. It bellows, "I'm yours, baby! I'll take you anywhere you want to go." It doesn't work.

CAVEAT 1. When the GPS in your rental car seems to be on the fritz, don't assume you've done something wrong. Chances are it just doesn't work.

I sit down in the driver's seat and push the big red button on the left side of the NeverLost screen. Then I press Enter, plug in the city and the street address in Palo Alto where I have a 3 p.m. meeting, and hit Enter again.

This message comes up: "Too far away from road for system to plan. System cannot plan route from here to your selected destination. System will start planning a route when it finds a suitable road. Press Cancel to quit." Though I'm just a stone's throw away from U.S. 101, the highway I know I need to use to get myself to Palo Alto, I think that maybe the system won't work until I get away from all the planes in the airport. I don't know why I think this. Nevertheless, I begin winding my way south on 101 toward Palo Alto without a clue how to find my first appointment.

CAVEAT 2. Keying in a destination or just reading the instructions on the screen about how to key in a new destination can be dangerous.

A few times on the trip down 101 toward Palo Alto, I try to reenter the destination but get nothing. When you first turn on the system, you get a screen with the message: "Pay attention so you can operate the vehicle safely and correctly. If you look at the screen too long, you may be distracted and become involved in a situation that results in serious personal injury or damage." I am frustrated and dangerously close to doing some personal injury myself.

By the time I reach the exits for Palo Alto, it's 2:30 p.m. California time. I reach over for the NeverLost operating-instructions booklet. On the back it says: "If you experience problems with Hertz NeverLost, call 1-800-823-2547 Monday-Friday 8 a.m.­5 p.m. EST." It is now 5:31 EST. Hah. I decide to call anyway.

I've now exited 101 and find myself on El Camino Real. I take out my cell phone and dial the 800 number, which turns out to be for the system's manufacturer, Magellan Systems. Sure enough, a recording tells me that the office is closed but that I can call Hertz roadside assistance. I dial that number. A guy named Todd answers. He asks me for my rental-car agreement number. I fumble through some papers, all the while trying to keep an eye on the road, and read it to him. He puts me on hold. I can't identify the on-hold music. It isn't soothing.

Todd gets back on the phone and tells me I can go to 4201 El Camino Real to pick up a different car at Rickey's Hyatt House. I'm now driving past the 1800 block of El Camino Real. It's about 2:55. I figure it's worth a shot. He says to ask for John.

I exchange the Town Car for a blue Ford Crown Victoria, test out the system, plug in my destination, and, bingo, I'm on my way. Flawlessly, NeverLost guides me and talks to me. "Left turn ahead," it tells me in plenty of time to make the turn. "Approaching destination," it says when I near the location of my appointment. I've made it! The NeverLost system has guided me beautifully through all three blocks from Rickey's Hyatt House to the address of my 3 o'clock.

I finish my meeting and am on the road by 4:49 p.m. The rest of the week's traveling is simply great. I've decided to stay up in Yountville, a small town in Napa County, so that I can try out the system's prowess on small country and mountain roads. I plug in the address of the Oleander House, a bed and breakfast located on 7433 St. Helena Highway. Clear directions and smooth sailing.

After following the system's calming commands--everything from the simple "sharp right turn ahead" to the remarkably explicit "exit right, stay in left lane, then turn hard right"--I get to my destinations with no trouble at all.

CAVEAT 3. Generally speaking, roads don't come with names like CRG3, so when they show up on your screen, you can assume something's gone awry.

Only once in my three days of travel in San Francisco and environs do I encounter what I take to be an oddity of the satellite-tracking process. When I'm heading out of Palo Alto and looking for the entrance to U.S. 101 north, NeverLost tells me to get onto CRG3 just as I'm approaching Page Mill Road. Page Mill is the only road in sight, so I take a right onto it. Turns out that C, R, and G3 are the mapping coordinates for Page Mill.

CAVEAT 4. The system will get you there, but your choice of routes may be limited.

There are three options for routing on the NeverLost system: fastest route, fewest freeways, and most freeways. I usually ask for fastest route. When I do ask for fewest or most freeways, the system draws a blank. So fastest route it is.

CAVEAT 5. If you don't know where you're going, you're never going to get there.

On my final day in California, I take a morning jaunt to a winery called Folie à Deux, up the road from my bed and breakfast. I then use NeverLost to get me from there to Third Street in downtown San Francisco. It guides me seamlessly through traffic, construction, and the back streets of the city. Next I'm to head out to Intel for a meeting.

I plug in Palo Alto as the city. Then I search for Mission College Boulevard. Nothing. I look again. Still nothing. So I try San Jose. Nothing. I can't figure out what's wrong. So I set out on U.S. 101 south, thinking that I'll come up with a way to get to Intel while I'm on the road. I look for the envelope on which I've written down Intel's phone number, and I notice that--whoops--the company's in Santa Clara. I have no idea why I thought it was in Palo Alto or San Jose. And sure enough, when I plug Santa Clara into NeverLost and then 2200 Mission College Boulevard, NeverLost nearly flies me to Intel.

This leaves me pondering a central truth about any GPS: If you don't know where you're going, no system, no matter how good, is going to get you there.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an executive editor at Inc. magazine.


  • Avis (800-331-1212) was the first rental-car company to offer GPSs, in the early 1990s. It charges $5 extra a day for cars equipped with its Satellite Guidance system.
  • Hertz (800-654-3131) charges $6 extra a day for cars equipped with a NeverLost system (manufactured by Magellan under the name PathMaster).
  • National Car Rental (800-227-7368) is testing a system it calls Navigator (from Siemens Automotive). Unlike Hertz, which has GPSs in roughly 8,000 cars across the country, and Avis, which has them in about 1,000 cars nationwide, National has installed systems in its Atlanta and Detroit fleets only.
  • Orbital Sciences' Magellan Systems (800-823-2547) recently bought Rockwell's PathMaster business. The system can be purchased as an aftermarket add-on for around $3,000 a unit. PathMaster has its own Web site at