GPS for less

Once a high-priced luxury, GPS units for truckers are more affordable and functional than ever.

The road to affordable Global Positioning System units has been long. Once any basic navigational device would cost upward of $1,000, but fairly sophisticated GPS devices – or software programs – now can be bought for $400 or less. Systems under $400 generally don’t have top-notch bells and whistles, such as real-time traffic information, though handy use of a CB and local radio stations often can remedy that.

As diesel prices remain high, the industry will look to GPS devices and software to cut fuel costs and wasted time by reducing out-of-route miles, says Chris Driscoll of the American Trucking Associations’ Traffic and Logistics Management Unit. Carriers and owner-operators “are painfully aware that they have to do whatever they can to get a competitive edge,” he says. GPS or traffic update systems even could become standard equipment on new trucks, he speculates.

One popular unit selling under $400 is Garmin’s StreetPilot C330, says spokeswoman Jessica Myers. The device features a touch-screen interface, route calculations to any destination and voice-prompted direction. It also allows users to choose between three-dimensional navigation and a more traditional bird’s-eye view, Myers says.

Carlyle Kuhns of Goshen, Ind., purchased three C330s for $300 each for his four-truck fleet in the past year and believes he already has seen a return on investment. Eliminating wrong turns and incorrect directions reduces miles and therefore fuel costs, Kuhns says.

“My drivers used to spend a lot of time calling the customer to ask for directions,” Kuhns says. “Now all they have to do is put the address in the thing.”

Exposure to accidents also is down because of reduced driver distraction, he says. “You’re not looking for street signs anymore. It’s letting you know your street is coming up, and in 500 feet you have to turn right or left.”

Although the C330 doesn’t have the large screens and real-time traffic updates of its four-figure counterparts, Kuhns says it still provides the street-by-street directions that truckers increasingly can’t do without. Garmin also has a basic package similar to the C330 – the GPS 18 USB Deluxe – that sells for under $150 at some stores.

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Thales Navigation makes GPS units under the Magellan brand, starting at $300. Several offer live traffic updates. Many systems are geared toward truckers or have specific options for big rigs. For example, the 7200 model’s 7-inch screen, too big for a car’s dashboard, was designed for truckers. For $400, Magellan’s Maestro 3140 device uses an integrated antenna and battery for easy portability, and uses BlueTooth and text-to-speech software. A points-of-interest catalog includes millions of business and service listings, handy for breakdown emergencies.

Getting GPS capability doesn’t necessarily require buying new hardware. If you have a laptop or Pocket PC, software can provide many of the same features you’d get on a GPS device.

ALK Technologies offers GPS through CoPilotTruck9 Laptop software, at roughly $250. It features street-level maps for the United States, highway level maps for Canada and Mexico. For $350, you can get one of two upgrades. One has a wireless USB receiver that allows for 3-D display with mileage markers and moving maps. It also offers spoken directions, automatic route recalculation and routing options that include practical, shortest, national network, hazmat and PC*Miler routing. A Bluetooth adapter offers many of the same features. The other $350 upgrade (or $250 for a more basic package) is for SmartPhones or for Pocket PCs that are equipped with Windows Mobile 5 or 2003 capabilities.

Barend de Wit, a British Columbian who hauls machinery and oversize equipment for Admiral Merchants Motor Freight of Minneapolis, has used CoPilot GPS for six years. “I don’t ever look at a map anymore,” he says. “Anytime I second-guess the program, it proves me wrong.” The system also connects to the Internet, allowing de Wit’s wife and dispatcher to know exactly where he is and how fast he’s traveling.

A 10 Laptop update is being released this summer. Its features include real-time traffic, toll-road alerts and more than 6 million points of interest, including fuel stops and restaurants, says ALK spokesman Craig Fiander.

Microsoft’s Streets & Trips 2007 software sells for $120 through most Internet vendors. David Resnick of Elkhart, Ind., uses this GPS product for his expanding five-truck fleet. The package comes with its own GPS receiver that can be plugged into your laptop to pinpoint your location. Features include map zooming to show details and locators for gas stations and restaurants. Microsoft’s website offers updates.

“Anybody who didn’t have GPS, I ended up buying a copy for them,” Resnick says of his drivers. “It’s well worth the expense.” Although the program doesn’t specify truck routes, he says it’s still helpful and easy to use. Other GPS products often got him lost, he says.

When shopping for a GPS unit, consider not just price but features and whether a stand-alone device or computer software would fit your operation better. In addition to comparing products among Internet vendors, you can shop at big-box electronics stores and truck stops.

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Satellite radio is proving handy in real-time navigation. XM Satellite and NavTech offer GPS navigation to subscribers. XM’s service costs roughly $4 a month and requires a compatible receiver, though that needn’t be an XM receiver. Most Garmin GPS units, for example, are compatible, and XM spokesman Mike Hooper says more receiver companies are signing partnerships with XM to carry the service.

A subscriber to such GPS services receives a navigation map on his device that includes real-time traffic information, average speed, traffic incident information, lane closures and road work.

XM also is launching a service to provide nationwide weather forecasts, Hooper says. For a price that hasn’t been announced, subscribers will be able to get current weather and forecasts a half-hour ahead of normal release.

Whether XM’s traffic and weather services will be offered to Sirius Satellite customers once the proposed merger of the two satellite radio giants is complete is not known. Federal regulators have yet to decide on the merger.

At its website, NavTech offers live traffic updates for dozens of U.S. cities. Once signed up for the free service, you can be notified of traffic updates and problems via the Web, e-mail or phone.

Navigational services also are available at (click on Traffic Alert to connect to various services), via Microsoft’s free service. With the click of a button, one can get live updates for most U.S. cities. Problematic traffic situations are marked with warning signs color-coded as minor, moderate and serious. City-to-city live traffic searches are available, as are block-to-block searches.

NavTech and Microsoft’s services, being free to users, are ad-heavy, so having someone other than the driver do the searching would be helpful, as the programs are not voice-responsive.

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