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Way to Go

By on September 1, 2009
RoadKing Mag

The Navy had been working on the idea of satellite navigating since 1960, advancing a tool developed during World War II. Long-range radio aids were used then to determine a ship’s or airplane’s position quickly and accurately.

When the U.S. started exploring space, scientists placed new navigation satellites in orbit, thousands of miles above earth’s surface. Although early systems could determine an object’s location only about once an hour, the concept was proven and development proceeded. In September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a passenger airliner, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, because it strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace. To prevent similar tragedies, President Ronald Reagan had the rapidly developing military technology made available for non-miliary use. The initial constellation of global positioning system (GPS) satellites was launched between 1989 and 1993. Performance available to those outside the military was originally degraded to about 330 feet, adequate for general navigation but unable to pinpoint specific locations. Subsequently, the more precise readings were allowed to the public, enabling our current in-vehicle navigation systems.

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When I was in the Air Force before the Vietnam War, “dead reckoning” was the fallback in case radio navigation aids failed.  We would take a sighting on a landmark and plot its line of direction to our plane on our navigation charts. Then we would do the same with two more landmarks. Because we were traveling several hundred miles an hour, the lines formed a triangle rather than just intersecting. We would use special circular slide rulers called “plotters” to calculate speed and distance over time. We could, with reasonable accuracy, determine where we were and make any course corrections for wind currents. The process is called triangulation.

Today, we have high speed computing power and ultra-accurate atomic clocks. Our tedious process is done electronically in milliseconds.

Dead reckoning was adequate when flying under VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions or operating ships and pleasure boats, but when speeds increased, the technique proved too slow. LORAN (long range radio navigation) changed the principles. Instead of taking bearings on landmarks or radio transmitters in known locations, unique radio signals identified the time that the signal was sent, along with the location of the transmitter. The receiver could determine the distance to the transmitter by measuring the time each signal took to get there. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second. Where the signals intersect is where you are. The more transmitters in the system, the greater the accuracy.

Take that same idea and, instead of fixed transmitters on land, use two dozen or more satellites in orbit, almost 11,000 miles above the earth. Usually, 10 to 12 satellites are “visible” electronically from any point on earth’s surface. The system is truly Global Positioning.

So far, we’ve combined accurate timing, high speed computing power and triangulation to determine where we are. But to benefit truckers, more must be added. The first applications tied GPS location to voice and data communications. Qualcomm could establish two-way communications with trucks anywhere. The truck receives data transmissions from company locations, and can transmit data such as responses to messages, vehicle diagnostics and GPS location.   

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Route planning software was still a few years away. It had to wait until there was a database of every street, country road and highway. Each had to be digitized, identified in a way that computers could match GPS coordinates with the road maps. And to make the system functional, streets and highways had to be named as well as plotted.

Although not the first to develop navigation tied to GPS, ALK Technologies pioneered the inclusion of truckers’ information in their PC MILER software. What started as route planning-only developed into software for laptop computers that, with an antenna, became a GPS navigation system.

Rand McNally, famed among truckers for its atlas incorporating road restrictions and low underpasses, also developed route planning and navigation software for computers.

While software was being developed, data bases were being updated with information of interest to drivers: construction zones, school zones, red light cameras and known speed trap locations. NavAlert is a GPS device smaller then a pack of cigarettes that keeps these locations in memory. When approaching one of these points of interest. NavAlert gives a tone alert followed by a voice message. Accuracy is reasonably good, and the unit updates easily through any computer.

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In the past few years, specialized dedicated navigation computers have grown in popularity, but most, made for the mass market (cars) do not include truck restrictions. Also, screen sizes range from 5 inches (diagonal) to 2.5 inches or smaller. While adequate for cars, they are small when placed farther from drivers in truck cabs. Five-inch screens are acceptable, but seven inches are far easier to comprehend with a quick glance.

We have now entered a time of leap-frogging competition for the trucker market. ALK  introduced the PC MILER Navigator 430, using their CoPilot Truck GPS technology. Garmin, one of the leaders in GPS for automobiles, launched the Garmin Nuvi 465T 4.3-inch truck GPS Navigator, incorporating truck restrictions, the NTTS Breakdown Directory and Lane Assist to help you get into the proper lane well in advance.

To experience truck GPS in the real world, I borrowed a WorldNav 7100 Truck Routing 7-inch GPS from TeleType. The screen was easy to read from more than four feet away. Once truck weight and size were entered, the unit computed all routes to avoid restrictions far in advance.

Several times, I wondered why the program took me by what seemed to be a round-about route. When I ignored the route and went my usual way, I found there were restricted areas ahead. Rather than just detouring around the weight-restricted bridge and class III truck routes and getting back on course, the TeleType had planned the best unrestricted route to my destination.

The unit’s set-up took a bit to learn, but soon became second nature. When deviating from the planned route, it took a long time to re-compute a route, but an accessory antenna would have helped shorten the delay. The unit incorporates more than 12 million points of interest. Upgrading is done by changing memory cards. One is free, with a nominal charge thereafter. And on the Interstates, exit warnings start a mile before the exit.

New truck units seem to be arriving on a regular basis. Cobra partnered with ProMiles and TruckDown to create a new professional driver navigation and routing device, to be introduced at the Great American Trucking Show. It will be available in September.

Finally, Rand McNally will be bringing out the IntelliRoute TNC500. It plays turn-by-turn directions through high-powered speakers that can be more readily heard in a truck cab. There are also cross references to the printed Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas. The 5-inch touch screen has large icons for easier use.

As each new entrant in the truck GPS navigation market adds more trucking-specific features, there will be one person who will benefit most from the competition: you, the professional driver.

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