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In-Car vs. Handheld Navigation - A Look at Cost and Safety for New Car Buyers

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
July 7, 2010

It is a debate that is often argued back and forth in the heads of those in the market for a brand new car - whether or not to spring the extra cash for the high tech options that are so dazzling on the showroom floor. Out of all the top flight equipment that can add to the bottom line on a new car the one that is often the most appealing - and the priciest - is a navigation system.

It is hard to argue against the utility of a navigation feature, especially since it essentially means never getting lost behind the wheel again when driving through a strange city or taking a long road trip. However, there are some who argue that the extra expense of a factory navigation system is simply not worth it when there are so many handheld GPS systems flooding the market.

When looking at the situation from a sheer economic perspective, it would seem that handheld GPS navigation systems have an advantage over traditional, dash-mounted in-car units. Typically, a navigation system is an option that starts out at a cost of around $1,000, with some automakers choosing to bundle this feature as part of a package that provides additional features but with an even higher price tag. This is particularly true of luxury car companies that often link together navigation, rearview camera systems and even high end vehicle management systems through the same interface. In addition, navigation is often unavailable on entry-level trims, which means that on top of having to pay for the option itself new car buyers are required to step up to a top of the line model and pay the extra MSRP that comes with it if they desire an in-car unit.

Compared to the $100 starting price of many handheld navigation systems produced by companies such as TomTom or Magellan, it is clear that the cost advantage is held by third party manufacturers. Even high feature portable nav units can be had for less than $500, a fraction of an in-car system's price. Smart phones have also jumped on to the GPS navigation bandwagon, with a number of apps available for the Apple iPhone, the Android or Blackberry models that offer all of the functionality of a standalone device in the form of inexpensive software.

At this point in the discussion, it would be tempting to discard factory navigation in favor of a handheld GPS system based on price alone. However, there are important benefits to an in-car system that must also be taken into consideration. Most prominent is the question of safety. With distracted driving highlighted as one of biggest causes of accidents in the United States by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the driver attention that a smart phone or handheld device diverts from the road can in some cases be as dangerous as texting behind the wheel. In-car navigation systems, on the other hand, provide a nav experience that is integrated into a vehicle's systems, providing a large viewing screen for maps and instructions as well as controls, commands and buttons that are bigger and far easier to read.

The good news for new car buyers looking to save money without compromising on safety is that a middle ground between small, affordable portable devices and expensive factory-installed systems might already be here. Companies such as Ford and BMW, which have recently announced increased compatibility between their SYNC and iDrive vehicle control systems and third party smart phones, are working to bridge the gap between inexpensive software apps and a safer driving experience. By allowing smart phones or internet services to perform the actual navigation functions and using a vehicle's large LCD screens and other systems to display mapping and direction information, it is possible to achieve a balance between driver distraction and cost.

SYNC is available across most of the Ford lineup and integration with several navigation applications is included free of charge, meaning that buyers do not have to order in-car nav in order to benefit from the features that this type of system offers. This type of pricing model and the continued integration of wireless devices and technologies into even inexpensive automobiles could spell the end of pricey factory installed navigation as we currently know it.


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