Home » GM Had GPS Navigation Working Back in 1992, But Abandoned It A Year Later

GM Had GPS Navigation Working Back in 1992, But Abandoned It A Year Later

Gm Navigation 1992 Ts
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GPS navigation systems really hit the mainstream in the early 2000s. Another decade later, and they were included on just about every vehicle in the market. What you might not know is that GM had in-vehicle GPS navigation up and running as early as 1991.

Of course, GM wasn’t the only company fiddling about with navigation at this time. The idea of turn-by-turn route guidance had long existed in the industry, and it was only in the early 1990s that technology got to the point where it was even plausible. When that happened, GM was right there, ready to invest in a cutting-edge project to make it happen.

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And yet, despite this early start, it would be quite some time before navigation became commonplace across the company’s fleet. Let’s explore why.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 0 27 Screenshot (1)
When TravTek debuted, auto journalists looked like this.

Future Forward

Known as TravTek, GM’s system basically previewed the navigation systems we use today. Unlike some early navigation systems, this wasn’t some weird electromechanical system, nor did it rely on expensive localized infrastructure.  Relying on GPS for guidance, it was a fully-featured system, even integrating real-time traffic feedback and a points-of-interest database.

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The system was built by a grand partnership. GM teamed up with AAA and the Flordia Department of Transportation, initially equipping the system for a trial in the city of Orlando. This was an ideal test case for the system, as it would have great utility in helping visitors navigate the popular tourist destination.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 2 4 Screenshot
A fleet of cars were fitted with TravTek and handed over to Avis for rental use by the public.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 0 23 Screenshot (1)

The system was based on the existing Visual Information Center (VIC) display as used in the Oldsmobile Toronado and Trofeo.To that end, GM built 100 test vehicles equipped with TravTek, and it gave 75 of them to Avis to use as rental cars. The other 25 were given to local test drivers. If you were visiting Orlando in 1992, for example, you could rent yourself a duly equipped Toronado for as low as $29 a day, or just $139 a week.

GM chose the Oldsmobile Toronado as the testbed for the TravTek system. It made perfect sense, as the TravTek system was developed from GM’s earlier Visual Information Center (VIC) display used in the Toronado. Pressing the “NAVIG” button on a VIC only gave you a compass. On the TravTek cars, it gave you access to a fully-fledged touchscreen GPS navigation system.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 0 19 Screenshot (1)

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The TravTek VIC unit was mounted in the center of the dash just like modern infotainment units. It used a color cathode ray tube, providing a crisp and bright image that wasn’t possible with contemporary LCD technology. It displayed simple line maps to provide turn-by-turn guidance to the driver’s chosen destination. Voice instructions were also provided courtesy of a crude speech synth.  Based on the sound output, it sounds curiously like the Texas Instruments TMS5100, though a number of speech synths in that era had a similarly robotic sound due to technical limitations.

The system could navigate to points of interest selected from its own rich database. Alternatively,you could choose a street or intersection from the list as your desired destination instead. Thus, it was useful both for tourists visiting major attractions, as well as locals just wanting to get around the city.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 1 20 Screenshot
TravTek was only loaded with maps and information for Orlando and the surrounding metropolitan area.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 0 27 Screenshotbbbb)

Much like modern systems, TravTek could also customize a route to your tastes. Namely, it would let you choose to avoid toll roads or interestates if you so desired. Otherwise, it would just find you the fastest route to your destination.

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GPS satellites were only just over a decade old, but they provided the necessary navigational signals for the TravTek system to determine the vehicle’s position. A large and unsightly antenna sat on top of the rear of the car to pick up the satellite signals reliably. Also helping out in this regard was a built-in digital compass, along with wheel sensors that measured the vehicle’s speed to aid in location tracking. This was particularly helpful, as at the time, civilian GPS signals were limited to a far lower level of accuracy than today. Years later, this would eventually change when President Clinton decreed the end of Selective Availablity for GPS, which drastically improved the accuracy of civilian GPS systems.

Antennamen

Beyond 2000 1993 Full Episode Part 2 Of 3 7 57 Screenshot (1)
Not exactly pretty, but this bulky GPS antenna did the job.

The system was actually more fully featured than many GPS units that hit the market a decade or more later. Through the assistance of the Fedaral Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transport, the city of Orlando was granted a new Traffic Management Center. Through a network of distributed cameras and sensors, the TMC tracked traffic conditions across the city. Traffic data from the TMC was sent to TravTek units over an FM radio link, advising drivers of congestion on their routes.

Based on TMC data, the display would also show red stars denoting accidents, red circles for closed roads, and yellow circles to denote heavy traffic. TravTek was capable of rerouting in cases of severe congestion or other hazards with the touch of a button. The connection was two-way, with TravTek able to notify the TMC of its own position.

Beyond 2000 1993 Full Episode Part 2 Of 3 11 38 Screenshot
The guidance display was most useful for showing the driver where to go. Voice directions also proved helpful, just as in modern GPS systems.

For AAA’s part, it established the TravTek Information and Services Center to support users of the system over the phone. This is demonstrated in a TV segment from Beyond 2000, an Australian technology show. The presenter makes a wrong turn (obviously on purpose), and then hits the system’s Help button. This triggered the rental car’s phone to dial in to AAA’s help center. At the center, an assistant advises the presenter on what to do. Automatic rerouting wasn’t a thing on TravTek, but it could determine if you got off route. In that case, it would ask if you wanted it to generate a new route to your destination by pressing a button.

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AAA also provided a rich source of local information for the TravTek system. Baked into the database was a list of hotels, tourist attractions, and other points of interest that could readily be called up on the TravTek display. Users could see a hotel’s AAA rating and even learn if it had a swimming pool if they so desired, all on the screen. At the touch of a button, they could then place a call to the hotel if they wished to make a booking. Or, they could simply use the navigation instructions to get there and make their inquiry at the front desk.

Beyond 2000 1993 Full Episode Part 2 Of 3 7 20 Screenshot
The system featured a large bank of local attractions and even shows and concerts in its onboard database.
Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 0 54 Screenshot
If so desired, you could call a hotel just by hitting a button on the touchscreen and picking up the carphone.

Going beyond that, AAA even provided TravTek with a list of “Things to See and Do.” This advised the user on upcoming concerts, plays, and performances, even including details as granular as show times and ticket prices.

Building the system specifically for use in Orlando helped control the scope of the trial. This meant that infrastructure to support TravTek only had to be deployed in one city, and this limited staffing requirements in turn. Storing map data and points of interest was also easier when the system only had to cover one city. Storage and RAM were both incredibly expensive in this era, after all, to say nothing of the effort required to produce the digital maps and data in the first place.

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The system was in radio contact with the Traffic Management Center which could provide live updates on road conditions.

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The Beyond 2000 segment gets a little creepy. “Hello Joe, it’s Tracy,” she says, as she drives with her eyes closed.

Beyond 2000 1993 Full Episode Part 2 Of 3 11 59 Screenshot
“Hi Tracy! I’ve been tracking you since you left the airport. I saw that wrong turn you made…” says Joe. This was staged for the show, but it comes across both hilarious and unsettling.

Well Received

The retro system might look old and complicated, but it was remarkably well received during the trial. Data was collected from over 4,000 volunteer drivers who used the system over the 12-month trial period, most of which provided positive feedback on the technology.

A questionnaire was given to determine driver perceptions of the system. A value of 6 was assigned to “Strongly Agree,” with 1 assigned to “Strongly Disagree.” Drivers resoundingly stated that the TravTek Guidance Display helped them find their way (5.7), and many found the voice instructions similarly helpful (5.4).

Overall, 96% of drivers surveyed believed TravTek would be useful for “out-of-town business driving,” while 99% believed it would be useful on vacation. Interestingly, though, just 39% believed it would be useful for driving “at home.”

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Much work was done to make the system’s directions clear and easy to understand.

Research into the device also found that TravTek slashed trip planning time for drivers. Setting up the system at the start of the trip took just 30 seconds, relative to 5-8 minutes for drivers that used traditional paper maps. Travel times were shorter too, which was perhaps a function of drivers making less mistakes.

In direct testing, researchers also found that every driver using the system found their destination. In contrast, 7 percent of drivers in the control group failed to reach their intended destination. It also appeared that the system helped reduce the workload on drivers navigating to unfamiliar destinations, though this was based on some subjective assessment by researchers.

Ultimately, 47.9% of drivers stated they liked TravTrek a whole bunch. Amusingly, though, one feature stood out as unpopular. 31.2% of drivers stated the synthetic voice was their least favorite feature. Much of this came down to the poor intelligibility of the voice. Few actually wanted it eliminated entirely.

Beyond 2000 1993 Full Episode Part 2 Of 3 12 9 Screenshot

Future, Faltered

The system worked, and the drivers liked it. So, TravTek ended up as a market success, right? Well, not quite.

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One problem was cost. In 1992, a handheld GPS receiver cost over $1,000. That was with a tiny black-and-white LCD display, no maps, no guidance, or any advanced features whatsoever. In contrast, the TravTek system would have been far more expensive to implement. It had a large color display, the ability to display directions, read out voice commands, and store a great deal of map data. All that data also cost money to collect and maintain. Plus, there was the added cost of support staff and infrastructure like the Traffic Management Center and AAA’s hotline for user assistance.

Early In Car Navigation System Throwback Thursday 1 25 Screenshot
The route map was rudimentary, and not up to the standard of more modern devices. Users found it less helpful than the specific guidance display that showed instructions on when and where to turn.

Cut back to the research, and it was clear that the business case wasn’t quite there yet. Researchers found that customers were willing to pay around $1000 to $1200 for a TravTek system, either as an aftermarket accessory or as an option on a new car.

At those prices, it would be difficult to cover the cost of the hardware required in the car. That’s saying nothing of the staffing and infrastructure costs to keep the whole system running, either.

Scale would also have been a challenge. Rolling out the system across the country would require ramping up staff on the back end to create and maintain maps and point-of-interest data for every city in the nation. There would also be the question of whether it would be cost-effective to have a TravTek unit store data for the whole country. With storage in the 1990s being incredibly expensive, it may have limited an individual car to storing maps for its local area only. This would have limited the system’s effectiveness for longer-range roadtrips —ironically where it would be most useful.

Ultimately, the system was just too expensive to work as a mass-market offering at the time. TravTek wouldn’t go beyond its initial 100-car trial. The Oldsmobile Toronado and its pioneering VIC system wouldn’t last much longer either, with the car cancelled after the 1992 model year.

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General Motors Guidestar Navigation Map Archive
GM would later develop GuideStar, equipping it on the Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight in 1995.

GM didn’t give up on its ambitions for a navigation system. It would return in 1995 with the GuideStar system, while multiple European and Japanese automakers were all rushing to market with their own systems. Even years later, the GuideStar system could still only cover 17 states. It was a $2,000 option on the Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight for that model year.

Ultimately, it would take another decade or so for GPS navigation to really find its feet. In the early 2000s, lower cost electronics helped GPS units make real market penetration, as did the improvement in GPS accuracy enabled by the Clinton administration. And yet, GM really did have it all figured out all the way back in 1992. As long as you were happy just driving around Orlando, that is.

Image credits: GM, MotoringTV via YouTube screenshot,  R D via YouTube screenshot, US DOT, Federal Highway Administration

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Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
2 months ago

That elbow dildo antenna is a dealbreaker for me.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
2 months ago

mmmmm…..Chi Chi’s

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  Pneumatic Tool

Yeah, I thought they were better than many other chains that have inexplicably survived

Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
2 months ago

Seems like this article would fit one of the many ongoing GM related article series on the site, just it’s a technology rather than a car.

Stacks
Stacks
2 months ago

Interestingly, though, just 39% believed it would be useful for driving “at home.”

Legend has it our distant ancestors could find their way even without a computer telling them where to turn! I’ve read they’d memorize entire nearby areas of incredible complexity. We speculate they may have navigated using the stars or important local rocks, but such knowledge has been lost to the ages.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
2 months ago
Reply to  Stacks

I still navigate by parked cars. There are always a few landmark, long-term parkers around, and I cannot seem to remember street names.

Stacks
Stacks
2 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

That’s a funny thing I’ve noticed too, actually. In my town I can personally get from anywhere to anywhere without having to think about it, but if someone from out of town asks me for directions I draw a blank. “Go down that wide street with the Whole Foods but then take a left 2 blocks before you get to the park” isn’t super helpful.

AnscoflexII
AnscoflexII
2 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

I was once in a line at a 7-Eleven when a guy came in asking for directions. Another customer said he knew exactly where the guys destination was and how many blocks before turns, etc. but he didn’t know a single street name-every turn was marked by a fast food restaurant or the proximity to one,

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
2 months ago
Reply to  Stacks

I tried that once recently.
It started out well enough.
Then I turned onto the Freeway and wound up in a traffic backup lasting 20+ minutes before I even came off the on-ramp.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
2 months ago

Navigating to Chi-Chi’s? The only place you’ll find that now is in Aisle 3.

DB Cooper
DB Cooper
2 months ago

It’s crazy that these existed in the early 90’s. I know by 96 Honda had navi as an option in JDM Civic’s and I’m not exactly sure the year in the US for Acura, but the RL and TL ended up with Navi by 96-99ish.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
2 months ago
Reply to  DB Cooper

Pretty sure the TL got it for ’99 so the RL should be a little before (at least one would think). The Odyssey was the first Honda-badged product here to offer it in 2000 and that felt like a big deal, so advanced, in a non-luxury car. It was still a couple years until it really began to trickle into other non-lux brands, I remember Toyota heavily featuring it in the 2002 Camry ads.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago

Having grown up watching james burke’s connections and the day the universe changed series, i always try to keep in mind that inventions, and technology all have their time and happen when ready!

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
2 months ago

Really weird seeing the car that was probably the Oldsmobile two-door my mom rented many moons ago.

Mom recalls having to sign a bunch of paperwork for a “lame white oldsmobile v6 two-door” with “a tv and a phone in the dashboard”, remembers being shown how to use the “TV”, scoffing at the “phonebook” (!) with some of the expensive restaurants in town, thinking it was silly to just list them instead of giving directions.

Last edited 2 months ago by MY LEG!
Alex
Alex
2 months ago

GM didn’t completely give it up after GuideStar. There’s a picture floating around of a Aurora with a prototype navigation head unit baked into the radio head unit.

Sensual Bugling Elk
Sensual Bugling Elk
2 months ago

Ah, GM and 90s navigation systems. A good reminder of a fun GM-era Saab story, courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson:

“At one point, a General Motors accountant went over to Sweden to see why Saab was costing them so much money. And he got into the new 9-3, turned on the sat-nav, and thought ‘wait a minute, that’s not one of our systems.’ And he was right, it wasn’t. Saab had developed, at vast expense, their own system. Because they thought GM’s wasn’t good enough.”

Trojan Duck
Trojan Duck
2 months ago

Damn, we could have had grandma inadvertently driving into a pond eight years earlier.

Camp Fire
Camp Fire
2 months ago

Hardly a passing mention of the touch screen? That was pretty new tech in 1991. GM was on the bleeding edge here.

Excellent engineering strangled by myopic accounting…It’s the GM way!

Last edited 2 months ago by Camp Fire
LTDScott
LTDScott
2 months ago
Reply to  Camp Fire

Because it had debuted years earlier on the previous generation Riviera and Toronado.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  Camp Fire

In comparison to the GPS, it was old hat, GM had been putting touchscreens in several car models for a few years already

Camp Fire
Camp Fire
2 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

It might have existed, but it wasn’t mainstream tech. Very few car owners had a touchscreen in 1991. Putting such into a rental fleet in a popular vacation destination should have been great marketing for them. Exposing the masses to your high-end features gives rental customers a reason to go visit their local Oldsmobile dealership when they get back home.

It feels like (yet) another wasted opportunity.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  Camp Fire

Eh, it’s an Australian technology show doing a piece about the GPS navigation, the touch screen was outside the scope of this particular program, who knows, maybe they had already done a feature on cars with touch screens years earlier and assumed their audience was already familiar, or else they figured that showing her pressing the screen to select options did a good enough job of communicating to the audience that the car had a touch screen.

Also, I’m pretty sure GM wasn’t selling any touch screen equipped cars in Australia at the time and the Buick and Oldsmobile brands weren’t sold there at all. This was sort of marketing for GM, but more of the “if this works out, you might be able to get it in your next Holden ca 2002, so watch for it” thing

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
2 months ago

I’ve got a TravelStar GPS of similar vintage:

https://live.staticflickr.com/8462/29168420521_907c9c889f_c.jpg

that my nephew and I took on the 2017 California to Washington to California Lemons Rally in my Austin Allegro. We didn’t make much use of its directions but one rally checkpoint was a sign along Highway 97 in Oregon that gave us the opportunity to verify its ability to determine latitude and/or ODOT’s ability to put the sign in the right place:

https://live.staticflickr.com/65535/53658866775_ae4bb6eb5b_c.jpg

Not too bad, I suppose.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

Related – how long until we see flip up/down headlight covers ala the Toronado return?

I know we can’t do popups anymore, but would FMVSS allow for sliding covers?

If so, could totally see them coming back (with today’s much better technology) as a way to add visual flair to cars.

Kleinlowe
Kleinlowe
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

What about Privacy Glass style color-matched panels so the car can have a sleek look without using lasik-bright pinpoint headlights?

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I feel like what Volvo has done on the EX90 is as close to a modern interpretation as we might get.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

That’s probably it, isn’t it – a sorta on-demand darkening setup. Not bad at all.

Scott Sabinson
Scott Sabinson
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

As a child of the 70s and 80s, and PO of three cars with pop-up/hidden headlights (’84 Supra, ’92 Trans Am, and ’70 Ford XL), I would gladly welcome back covered headlights, even as an option.

Angrycat Meowmeow
Angrycat Meowmeow
2 months ago

Trying to think of the GM equivalent of “vorsprung durch technik”.

Stagnation through bureaucracy?
Regression through mismanagement?

Andrew Daisuke
Andrew Daisuke
2 months ago

Calamity through conservation.

John Beef
John Beef
2 months ago

Aw yeah! I want some Chi Chi’s! Hold the Hepatitis A please. On a side note I just realized that while Chi Chi’s is Mexican slang for women’s breasts, Hepatitis also has the word “tit” in it.

I had my 6th or 7th birthday at Chi Chi’s. They put a giant hat on me that covered my whole head. My uncle let me try his margarita and they threatened to throw him out.

Yep, this post is all over the place.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
2 months ago

When TravTek debuted, auto journalists looked like this.”

Dazed, Bored and Confused?

Must have been too many Margaritas at Chi-Chi’s.

Tom T
Tom T
2 months ago

Can Autopian make a section on their website that has scoreboards, stats etc. not just articles. One scoreboard will be technology GM had and then abandoned only to see it come back and flourish in the future.

VanGuy
VanGuy
2 months ago
Reply to  Tom T

Truly boggles my mind how many articles we’ve had on this sort of thing already. I mean, this one makes sense to abandon as a short-term business decision, but damn.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  Tom T

Another scoreboard should be the times GM introduced a fundamentally decent car with half-baked engineering, waited until negative publicity dulled sales for several years, fixed all the problems just in time for nobody to notice or care, then immediately cancelled it

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
2 months ago

That sounds incredibly advanced. Seems like it had early V2X vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology, as well as some sort of on-call ‘concierge’ with remote access to your system, things that have been surfacing only now in the last few years.

And the ability to not just search but also call up points of interests for bookings/reservations only really became feasible with the advent of smartphones and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto nearly two decades later.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ben Chia
JunkerDave
JunkerDave
2 months ago
Reply to  Ben Chia

There were carphones back in the early 1970s. So long as it was built into the car, no need for a personal smart (or even dumb) phone. But I can see the rest of the tech wasn’t really economic yet.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  JunkerDave

Radio telephones were a thing in the 1940s, my grandfather had a company Oldsmobile 98 with a phone in it in the mid ’60s, he liked showing it off, apparently, but was careful to almost never use it since the charge for just making a connection, not the call itself, just the initial connection, was something like $1.00, then the per-minute charge for the call after

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
2 months ago

Why yes, I would like to go to 1992 Chi-Chi’s. Maybe I could get me some fri-yi-yi-yiiied-i-yi-yi-yice cream. It’s the celebration of food!

Anywayyyy, thanks for this deep-dive. This is the sort of thing that I would spend several hours researching on my own.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago

Ahh, 1992 Chi-Chi’s where you were always told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table regardless if it wasreally 5 minutes or 2 hours.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

I was just happy to be enveloped in the authentic Mexican ambiance.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
2 months ago

Oh GM, NEVER stop being you.

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
2 months ago

Desantis finally renamed his state.

the Flordia Department of Transportation

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 months ago

Lewin, whatever happened to Solarboi?
-this article made me think of that: last video I saw, you made him fling sharp metal all over the yard…

I also wonder what happened to these cars once the trial was over. Did GM crush them like the EV-1?

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 months ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

I understand time constraints.
but, also well remember your scream of triumph at mission accomplished and got a wee glimpse of how much you enjoyed faffing about with him.

>>definitely with a good shroud, though, next time 😉

T-wrecks
T-wrecks
2 months ago

I remember watching Beyond 2000 when I was a kid, I loved that show. Now, where’s my damn flying car I was promised!

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
2 months ago
Reply to  T-wrecks

Two years away. Always two years away.

Alexk98
Alexk98
2 months ago

Absolutely classic GM move, pioneer a technology and be so far ahead of the competition, just to nearly entirely abandon it and flounder a decade later when all the competition surpasses them, and consumers are clamoring for that thing.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
2 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

Came here to say this exact thing. Leaving pleased.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

It’s nice to see such glimpses of brilliance behind an near-impenetrable wall of mismanagement and bureaucracy.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

GM spent 40 years slowly sliding toward bankruptcy, it was like watching the world’s most boring train wreck

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

If GM can GM then GM will always GM.

Colin Howe
Colin Howe
2 months ago
Reply to  Alexk98

I’m not gonna blame GM for this one. The tech just wasn’t ready.

GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
2 months ago
Reply to  Colin Howe

And other automakers were working on nav at the same time globally too, so everyone was trying to figure it out. It still took a bit to trickle down from being a luxury item and really it was at the turn of the decade it started to trickle down to more mainstream brands where it was still a high end option.

JumboG
JumboG
2 months ago

And still terrible. I had the BMW system of the late 90s, and a Lincoln system of the 00s, and pretty much both were bad. The user interface was bad, and if you missed a turn it took forever to re-route.

Last edited 2 months ago by JumboG
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