Start up a Navigator-equipped car, and a local map appears on a computer screen mounted near the dash. A green arrow marks the car's location. Punch in a destination, and it is displayed as a flashing star.
Now begin your drive and turn a corner. The arrow representing the car remains centered, pointing straight ahead, while the map pivots and scrolls around the arrow, matching every turn you make. Approaching a cross street, there's no need to crane to read a street sign when a glance at the screen reveals the street name, a feature that's doubly helpful at night. You can even touch a button and zoom to a wide view showing a whole city or shift down to the neighborhood scale, where only a few blocks appear. When the arrow on the screen meets the flashing star, you've arrived within 50 feet of your destination.
"I was amazed at how accurate it is," says Lt. Kip Rolle, whose Atherton, Calif, police department tested the Navigator for six months last year under what he terms "intense conditions. Whether in high-speed pursuit or skidding U-turns," he says, "we couldn't shake it no matter what we did."
For Stan Honey, 30, navigation systems have been a longtime obsession. Born in San Marino and schooled in engineering at Yale and Stanford, he is a top-class sailor who designed and built navigational computers for yachts that won the L.A.-to-Honolulu Transpac races in 1979 and 1983. The latter win was aboard a 67-footer owned by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. With Bushnell supplying seed money, Honey and a small band of Silicon Valley engineering pals formed Etak in Sunnyvale. Their firm's name came from the system of navigation practiced by Polynesian seafarers.
Etak's Navigator for cars has four main components: a solid-state electronic compass, a toaster-size computer (usually mounted in the trunk), a high-speed tape-memory unit and a choice of 4½-inch or 7-inch screens. Motion sensors mounted near two wheels scan strips of magnetic tape on the tires to count wheel revolutions, recording distance traveled, while the electronic compass provides headings. The computer continuously compares this input against digitized map information stored in tape cassettes.
Designing the Navigator was hard, Stan says, "but it also was fun because it hadn't been done before." He is particularly proud that the Navigator is so hard to fool, as long as the car is on the road. "If it gets towed or taken on a ferry ride, it won't know where it is," Stan admits, but keying in a new location takes only 15 seconds. Under normal conditions, he adds, using the Navigator is no more distracting to a driver than occasionally glancing at the gas gauge.
For an undisclosed sum, General Motors bought the right to offer a customized Etak system, reportedly for its 1989 luxury cars. Meanwhile, Etak sells its own version through independent dealers at $1,395 for the small screen, $1,595 for the large, plus installation. Map cassettes are $35 each, though only the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles-San Diego areas are now available (each cassette covers about twice the area of a typical gas station street map). More are promised soon.
One thousand-plus Navigators have been sold so far. Among the buyers: Michael Jackson and Gary Coleman. But Honey believes his biggest market may be among realtors or delivery drivers, who will save time and money using the Navigator. "In business as in yacht racing," he notes, "he who gets there first wins."
Remember the scene in Goldfinger where James Bond tails the villain's Rolls-Royce to an Alpine lair by following a blip on a computer screen installed in his trusty Aston Martin? Jolly clever, of course, but now an engineering whiz in California named Stanley K. Honey has something better: an electronic road map system called the Etak Navigator that could really make 007's eyes light up.