HolidayBuyer's Guide

GPS traffic reports for impatient drivers

Technology that helps you avoid gridlock is improving rapidly. A CNET News.com reporter takes a device for a test spin. Photos: GPS traffic kit shows the way

If relying on GPS in my car becomes a habit, I might lose whatever sense of direction I currently possess. But if it gets me out of traffic jams, maybe the trade would be worth it.

I tried out the Delphi Nav200 this week, and found myself rather robotically carrying out the orders of this little rectangular device suctioned to my windshield. After awhile I realized I was paying attention only to the cars around me and traffic signals, not street signs. I simply followed the tinny, female voice commanding me to "turn left...in...600 feet," or "exit right...in...half a mile."

It's oddly hypnotic, but incredibly useful. And more and more people are getting on the GPS bandwagon. Personal navigation is becoming increasingly popular--unit sales have jumped 300 percent in the last year, according to retail data collected by the NPD Group. Prices are coming down too. The average portable GPS device costs $441 today, down from $644 a year ago. Portable GPS devices can now play videos, music and games, as well as display photos, but one of the most appealing features is their ability to not only direct you where to go, but help you avoid traffic altogether.

The technology isn't perfect yet, but it's progressing. The Delphi Nav200 and its traffic reporting service, which is set for a May 1 release, can reroute you around accidents, congestion or construction zones on the fly. My takeaway--as a consumer, not as an expert in navigation systems--is that it's a useful tool for someone fed up with daily gridlock. But the technology is also addressing a need that could propel GPS legitimately into the mainstream and out of the tech geek's domain.

The Delphi Nav200 device I used is not the only one, or the best, out there, but it's reasonably priced--you can find it for between $250 and $300. (CNET Reviews rated it a 6.3.) In fact, several other in-car GPS devices, from brands like Garmin, Magellan and TomTom, will report traffic incidents using information from state transportation agencies and police reports. These units can also be purchased starting at around $300.

Like other systems, the Delphi service uses local Clear Channel radio stations to get its live traffic updates. This works in conjunction with the device's regular route planning and navigating. On the screen, yellow icons indicating traffic jams, construction, accidents and more will appear on your route. If one of these shows up on your screen, you can select a separate icon on the right side of the screen--with the included stylus or your finger, which doesn't work as well--for rerouting options. It's fairly simple, though the screen does get a bit busy with information.

A downside to getting these services is having to pay extra for them on top of the cost of the device itself. Usually, companies will charge a monthly or an annual subscription fee. XM Radio, for example, offers a real-time traffic service for about $13 per month.

But Delphi says it will charge just a flat fee of $200 for a lifetime subscription--on top of the original price of the GPS unit--which gets you a separate antenna that also needs to be plugged in to the device and suctioned to your windshield. (Side note: the tangle of wires is kind of unsightly.) That aside, the pricing structure could make traffic services, and GPS in general, more attractive to consumers. That means no messing around with activation or cancellation fees or contract renewals. Plus, you've already paid for it, so you're probably not going to cancel the service unless you return the whole unit.

Analysts say more attractive features and pricing could help drive sales to mainstream consumers. GPS makers do need to reach an even larger audience despite a 300 percent jump in unit sales over the past year. Prices dropped in December during aggressive holiday promotions, and sales unit volumes remain relatively low when compared with other consumer electronics mainstays like TVs and DVD players. Extra features, like traffic incident reports and rerouting services in particular, can help entice the consumer, according to Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group.

"Companies are trying to make these GPS devices more of an everyday tool," Rubin said. "That's why traffic is such a priority with them. It's something even consumers who know the way some place or know alternate routes, don't know which is the fastest way."

Raj Mitra, senior director of product marketing for Magellan, called traffic services "the killer application" for GPS in large metro areas.

The subscription model makes the most sense for cell phones and smart phones that offer traffic services since they're sold through carriers, whose users are already paying a monthly fee. But it can be difficult to build momentum by charging a monthly fee for a separate portable GPS device, Rubin said. At the same time, a $200 premium may cause some consumers to wonder if they'll actually get enough use out of such a device to warrant paying a lifetime subscription, he said.

Magellan, which also makes a line of real-time traffic kits for its GPS devices, currently offers its service for $60 a year in the U.S. But in Europe, where navigation devices are more popular, Magellan offers a lifetime subscription model, and it's looking to make that available stateside sometime this year.

Of course, getting rerouted around gridlock isn't a guaranteed time saver. A different route may be slightly longer, but at least you won't be inching along a congested roadway, checking the clock every five minutes.

The traffic-reporting system also doesn't cover every road. I didn't encounter any accidents--at least on the GPS system. But as I drove up Third Street, a relatively busy road in the South of Market area of San Francisco, I did pass a fatal accident in which a pedestrian was hit by a mail truck. Several police and ambulance vehicles were on the scene and flares were glowing in the street. But that didn't show up on the system.

A Delphi representative said the current system, as with many of the traffic-reporting systems out now, collects information for highways and major roads. The system will have to be expanded to include all roads sometime in the future.

In the meantime, I'll be sure to keep my eye on street signs.

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