DETROIT — `TURN left, one mile.''
It is like having a co-pilot, one who never sleeps and never gets lost. Next spring, Oldsmobile will become the first carmaker in America to offer an onboard navigator. Tap keys on the dashboard-mounted monitor, and the system will plot out the route or tip you off to the best local restaurants.
The Oldsmobile/Navigation Information System taps into the same Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network used by military aircraft. Future versions may link up with regional transportation centers to provide motorists with advance word on traffic jams.
``It's a technology that one day, perhaps 15 years from now, probably will be standard on most automobiles,'' says John Rock, general manager of the General Motors division.
The carmaker's navigation system will make its debut as a $1,995 option on the Oldsmobile 88 LSS sedan. Oldsmobile will offer it on other models if it is well received.
Here is how it works: A roof-mounted antenna receives signals from GPS satellites; an onboard computer plots out the car's location with an accuracy of about 50 feet; as a cross-check, wheel sensors measure every move the car makes; a computer, stashed away in the trunk, constantly compares that information with an electronic map, stored on a CD-ROM.
``Where do you want to go?'' the monitor prompts. By tapping a set of keys, the driver enters a destination. In an instant, the screen lights up with a detailed map of the city. Trying to read a map while driving could be dangerous, so the navigation system also reads instructions out loud. As the car approaches a turn, it counts down the distance and then announces, ``Turn left at the next corner.''
A CD-ROM is capable of storing close to 400,000 typewritten pages of information. So there is plenty of room for other features - what Olds engineering chief Larry Lyons calls ``an electronic yellow pages.'' Tap a few more keys to check local points of interest. You can also review lists of hotels and restaurants.
While Oldsmobile is the first automaker to offer a navigation system as an option on a new car, the technology has actually been available for nearly a decade. In the early 1980s, Etak, a California company, introduced an automotive navigator that required four cassette tapes to cover a city the size of San Francisco. Critics called it underpowered and overpriced. It did not sell. And they still suggest that navigation systems will have to do more than just replace paper maps.
Development is under way on more advanced systems such as the pilot TravTek program, which is sponsored in part by GM and the American Automobile Association in Orlando, Fla. Motorists call up route and tourist information. Their cars are also linked by radio to a regional monitoring center. Traffic information is broadcast over a radio channel and onboard computers quickly flash a warning and display an alternate route. Within the next few months, a more ambitious system dubbed Project ADVANCE will go into operation in Chicago.
Navigation systems are already a popular option in Japan.
The American rental car company Avis had strong demand for the five Oldsmobiles equipped with a prototype system in its San Jose fleet. The German electronic company, Blaupunkt, has had limited success with its Travel Pilot system.
As for Olds' system, ``There's data out there that suggests this could be a real hit,'' says William Pochiluk, an analyst with AutoFacts Inc. of Paoli, Pa. ``But it is extremely price sensitive.'' Oldsmobile officials acknowledge that only a small group of customers will be able to afford the option. Mr. Lyons predicts the first buyers will be real estate agents and salespeople.