If you have little faith in your partner's map-reading abilities, smart navigation is here, says Charles Arthur

You need never get lost again -- and the reason is that satellite navigation is falling dramatically in price. From being a very optional add-on which would add around £2,000 to the cost of your car, the inexorable march of computing power has come to our aid.

You need never get lost again -- and the reason is that satellite navigation is falling dramatically in price. From being a very optional add-on which would add around £2,000 to the cost of your car, the inexorable march of computing power has come to our aid.

That has led a lot of vehicle manufacturers to start offering "satnav" as a factory-fit option. Rover announced this month that it will include the TrafficMaster Smartnav as an option in the Rover 75 range, costing about £500 extra.

It's not just Rover -- 11 other manufacturers have also chosen Smartnav as an "approved accessory", including Nissan, Toyota, Subaru, Vauxhall, Mercedes, Volvo, Mitsubishi and Peugeot. Audi meanwhile offers a DVD-based satnav as part of a £2,000 extra audio-visual system that also plays MP3s or CDs and has screens. (The DVD can hold maps for pretty much the whole of Europe.)

Socially, satellite navigation also has a new profile. It has moved up from "very optional and slightly dubious extra that implies you have money to burn and get lost a lot" to "nice thing to have on board".

Better voice synthesizers, allied to digital maps, mean that they don't get lost (even if they may occasionally take you on a slightly longer route than a London cabbie would). And the truly nice thing about having a computer in the car is that if, or when, you get lost, blaming the navigator won't lead to sulking for the next 100 miles.

Nor does satellite navigation have to be built in. That growth in computing power means that handheld computers, such as Palm or PocketPC machines, can handle the task of giving directions too.

Though the total package, of handheld plus GPS, will cost more than the fitted version, you do get the advantage of having a handheld to carry away with you -- which you're advised to do, or else a criminal might.

Indeed, satnav is only the first of the wave of improvements that computers are bringing to cars. Last year Toyota showed off its "Intelligent Parking Assist", which uses a computer allied to a rear-mounted camera to parallel-park your car -- no driver intervention required. True, it's a $20,000 addition, but remember the rule of computer power. Based on that, the self-parking car is about four or five years away from being a reasonable add-on.

Similarly, at the end of last year, Cambridge Consultants demonstrated a car which has a built-in rear radar system that can distinguish bollards from toddlers, and will stop you reversing into either.

Other improvements that are already on the way are cars which have a "black box" element to their onboard computer, and so can report on what happened in the minutes leading up to an accident. That's already the source of some dispute, because insurance companies are very keen to get their hands on such data to be able to determine precisely who was at fault in a crash.

One system that doesn't seem to have found its way into most cars yet, despite having a proven track record, is a radar system that would keep you a safe distance from other cars while cruising. Nine years ago I drove a Jaguar fitted with such a radar cruise control along the M4: you set your cruising speed, and the system would keep you two seconds behind any cars in front. If it needed to brake, it would.

"Active cruise control" finally appeared in the Jaguar XK8 in 1997; but still costs around £2,000 extra on the dozen or so cars where it's offered -- because the big cost is the radar, not the computer to process it.

THE HIGH-TECH CHOICE FOR SATELLITE NAVIGATION

Trafficmaster Smartnav

Price: £500 plus fitting

Web: www.trafficmaster.co.uk

The Smartnav is increasingly popular with car manufacturers as an optional factory fitting and can also be easily added to existing cars.

Its data comes from traffic data points around the country, and can link you to human assistants or breakdown help. That traffic data is used to help route around delays -- which could be useful for the regular traveller.

Of course, humans at the end of phones cost more than machines, which is why it comes with a subscription cost of £120 per year or £350 for four years, giving you access to unlimited routes.

Which? magazine rated Smartnav the best system it tested, though you may find the subscription hard if you don't have much need of human assistance, or you're not that bothered by delays (and know how to get traffic reports on your radio).

Navman GPS

Price: from £230

Web: www.navman-mobile.co.uk

The Navman GPS uses software that runs on handheld computers, and links to a GPS receiver. You have to supply the handheld, or you can buy it many stores.

For about £100 extra, there's a Bluetooth option, which gets rid of trailing wires (though your cigarette lighter won't have much time for lighting anything, as it powers the system). Still, fitting is a doddle -- it's mounted on the dashboard.

The hardest thing about using it is getting the software onto the handheld machine, because it can take up a lot of memory. You can buy an extra memory card.

The interface itself is clean and simple, and the voice (male or female) that gives you directions is clear, rather than synthesised. There are no subscription fees, though you may need to download updates as maps change.

TomTom Navigator 2

Price: £269 inc GPS receiver and map of UK

Web: www.tomtom.com

The TomTom system works on PocketPC and the latest Palms, and is very pleasant to use. The display is clear and can be shown either as an overhead view or a 3D "as you fly" version, which is useful when negotiating networks of flyovers.

The voice is helpful, and it will recalculate routes if you decide to ignore it. Careful attention is needed for the settings of speeds on minor roads, because this can radically alter its estimate of what the best route is.

As with all the other systems, the TomTom will show "places of interest" such as petrol stations or castles, and you can enter destinations by postcode, as well as marking particular places as "favourites".

And when you're there, you can just slip it into your pocket and take it away with you. It's the only way to travel.

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