THE irony was hard to miss. I was driving up and down the streets of Menlo Park in a frustrating search for Etak Inc., where I had scheduled some interviews. Etak makes navigational devices for cars, little computers that sit on the dashboard and show the driver exactly where he is and what streets to take to get to his destination. One of Etak's products would have come in handy just then.
For now, Etak is the only US company to offer an in-vehicle mapping device. Only about 1,500 people have spent the $1,400 (plus $200 installation) to get one of these gadgets, though General Motors Corporation, which has a licensing agreement with Etak, may install them in some models in 1989. Chrysler and Ford are ``monitoring'' the technology, but have no plans to install this or anything similar for another five years at least.
Already, however, the race in navigational technology - systems far more sophisticated than mere computer maps - is getting intense overseas. Japan and Western Europe have had or have scheduled more sophisticated experiments than the United States, and appear to be ahead in bringing an affordable product to the market.
``It's another case where someone in Japan will come over and say, `Here's a nice little package, do you want to buy it?''' says Ivy Renga, program manager of technology development at Chrysler Corporation.
How a computer can drive
Even in their early stages, navigational systems will take a lot of the hassle out of driving in unfamiliar territory over the next few years, says Howard Ross at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He suggests this scenario:
A traveler lands at National Airport in Washington, D.C. She rents a car with a computerized map. She types in the name or address of the hotel, or the name of a specific tourist site like the Lincoln Memorial. The computer screen shows her how to get there, perhaps displaying a map of the area and specific, written directions. Such a map would be even more valuable in another country, Mr. Ross says, ``if you can't read the language or the street signs. The vehicle would let you find your way automatically.''
Except for salesmen, real estate agents, and other individuals who spend their work lives driving from place to place, there won't be much of a consumer market for the maps until the price comes down to the $500 range, says Mr. Renga at Chrysler. And they'll likely appear in Japanese-made cars first, in the early 1990s, says another automotive official, since only the Japanese have the technology in which a compact disc player runs both entertainment disks and data disks.
So initially, navigation computers are likely to show up in rental cars, delivery companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service, and emergency vehicles that need to find locations quickly, such as ambulances and police cars.
Computerized maps are only the first step in navigational technology, however. By the turn of the century, transportation experts say, navigation systems that have up-to-the-minute traffic information will reduce delays and frustrations for commuters.
There are a number of ways a computer can guide a driver. Etak's Navigator uses a compass and dashboard-mounted computer to keep track of where the car is. Etak has detailed maps of 75 percent of the major metropolitan areas in the US; these maps have been digitized and put on cassettes, which can be loaded into the computer. (The company estimates it will finish the rest within a year.)
The Navigator system has its limits. If you're in a traffic jam, you can look at the map and see what the alternative routes are. Those may be just as congested, however, or blocked off, or even one-way the wrong way, and you wouldn't know it from the map.
The Los Angeles experiment
The next step - which several countries, including West Germany, Japan, Britain, and the US are all exploring - is to get traffic information directly into the computer. That way, the driver knows what routes have delays, and roughly how many minutes the alternative routes would take. To do that, one needs to get ``real time'' traffic information into the computer.
One method would have the computer pick up traffic information from FM radio waves. Another would use cellular car phones. The motorist would call into the highway traffic control center for updated traffic information and, using a modem, download the information into the car's computer. A map could then display how long various routes would take, showing varying degrees of congestion.
As early as next year, the Federal Highway Administration, together with California's Department of Transportation, will begin an experiment using such technology in the Los Angeles area. They will have 20 to 30 vehicles whose computers (probably Etak's) will receive on-line traffic information, most likely through cellular telephones.
The vehicles will relay back information to the traffic control center, which could then make decisions about how to route traffic to reduce congestions, a particular boon in places like Los Angeles.
Another area that has sparked interest is satellites. This could be relatively cheap, and it would cover the vast expanses involved in cross-country driving. Sending information to cars from satellites can be unreliable, however, since tall buildings, tunnels, or even bad weather can block signals.
Overseas, there appears to be a more determined effort to get navigation systems up and running.
The Japanese have particular reason to do so. In most Japanese cities, addresses don't mean much, since buildings were often numbered not by where they are placed on the street, but when they were built.
``Instead of going to 85 Main Street, you go to Shinto Temple No. 7, then ask around,'' says George Bremser, president and chief executive officer of Etak.
In 1985, Etak signed a licensing agreement with Clarion, Japan's largest maker of car radios, which allows Clarion to sell the Etak navigational systems in cars in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Although not in the agreement (as it is in the contracts with GM and with Blaupunkt-Werke GmbH, a West German maker of audio equipment), Etak will likely make the maps of various Japanese cities for Clarion as well, Mr. Bremser says.
Japan has put up with this rather uncharacteristic imprecision for decades. But with the advent of the microprocessor and powerful personal computers that can hold thousands of pieces of information, the country's drivers need wander around no longer.
Now more than 50 companies, including all the auto companies and most of the consumer electronics firms, are working under the guidance of the Japanese government to develop a compatible navigational system. They are trying to develop the same standards to avoid the kind of incompatibility that snarled up the videocassette recorder industry with Beta and VHS. That way, for example, a son could use his own computerized maps in his father's car.
Shades of Big Brother
What Japan and other European countries appear to be developing is a system in which cars communicate with a central traffic control. Next September, for example, West Germany will launch its ``Ali-Scout'' experiment in Berlin. About 400 traffic lights will have computer beacons attached to them which would communicate with specially equipped cars.
Inside the car, a computer would tell the driver how to get to his destination (which the driver programmed in earlier). The advantage over radio waves or cellular telephone, as in the Los Angeles experiment, is that the beacons can read where each individual car is going, and can thus determine the quickest route - accounting for accidents, road construction, etc. - for that specific car.
This technology raises all sorts of flags in the American mind. ``There's considerable concern about Big Brother watching,'' says Adolf May, a transportation professor at Berkeley who has been monitoring the German experiment. ``If you have two-way communication with the driver, you can also get information from the driver, whether the driver wants you to have that information or not.''
It could also make motorists easier to police, since it would have proof that a certain car made an illegal left-hand turn, for example, or that a truck was driving down a roadway restricted to cars.
Etak has already confronted the privacy issue. Recently, the police impounded a car that had been used in some illegal smuggling operations. The car had a Navigator system in it.
``They remembered that one of the functions of the Navigator is that it stores [up to 16] locations'' in its data base, says Walter Zavoli, who heads Etak's research and development. ``So they called up our people and asked whether there was any way to get the computer to give them those locations, because those might have been locations where more smuggled goods were.''
Etak cooperated, but Mr. Zavoli did not know whether the police nabbed any more contraband.
Aside from privacy, there is another, already divisive issue that would be exacerbated by computerized navigation, says Adib Kanafani, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at Berkeley. The computer's job is to find the least congested route, ``but when you get traffic off the highway, you put it into the local communities,'' he says.
In the future, the major problems won't involve how computer navigation is done. ``The technology is on the shelf,'' Dr. Kanafani says. ``Japan has it. Germany has it. The US can buy it. The problem will be resolving the legal and social issues.''