In the carefully controlled aisles of the typical Costco superstore, one of the first things you’re likely to run into is a display for the portable navigation systems. Plug one in, stick it onto your windshield and you’ll never get lost again, or so claim manufacturers like Garmin, Magellan and TomTom.
The technology has come a long way over the last quarter century. The first commercial system, the Etak Navigator, required a half-dozen cassette-like data tapes to map a city the size of San Francisco. Today’s “navi” unit is likely to cover the entire U.S. and Canada on a thumbnail-size memory chip. And more and more of the devices are adding features like real-time traffic alerts, weather and a Bluetooth cellphone link.
Yet prices have plunged; from an average of $1,000 or more, early this decade, many models now come in at least than $200.
So, it’s perhaps no wonder that as an otherwise dreary 2009 comes to a close, industry analysts are forecasting that American consumers will have purchased a record 18 million portable navigation devices, up from the previous record, the 17.3 million sold last year.