Google Positioning System

Ed Zitron has a fantastic idea:

Google 16GB Nexus 7 retails for $200. Cheap Android tablets are rapidly racing toward the $50 range – though one can’t guarantee quality at $64.99 – and I see no reason why Google hasn’t jumped into [the consumer GPS industry] and squashed the competition. Google Maps navigator is twice the GPS that TomTom or Garmin has created (I’ve used around 8 in the last year) and is better than anything I’ve seen inside a car outside of Elon Musk‘s Tesla. Android is cheap to build for, easily customizable (look at the Kindle Fire or any of the different open source ROMs like Cyanogen Mod and Jelly Beans).

Google could create a small tablet – 6 inches, perhaps – put a SIM card in there much like Apple does for their cellular iPads – customize Android to focus on maps, and price the thing at $200. They could run a deal with Verizon like they do for the Chromebook – 100MB a month, for free, for two years.

I know that this idea is fantastic because it’s what I have been thinking for some time now. Indeed, it’s a variation of a goal that I have been working towards. I want an Android GPS system. I’d prefer it inside my dashboard, but I’ll take it outside of it. In fact, I’ve been road testing all sorts of Android map apps (I’ll be posting reviews) in preparation for buying one to have installed in the Forester. The Forester’s stereo interface is dreadful, and when we bought the car we agreed that I would be able to replace it. I hadn’t thought of Android – or even a GPS-capable player – at that point, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I like it.

What are the advantages of an Android GPS system? Namely, that I can use all of the addresses I already have stored in my phone. That’s a pretty big deal to me. The apps tend to be lackluster, either because they’re online-only (like Google Navigator, Waze), they don’t incorporate contact data easily (NavFree, MapFactor), an inability to work offline (Skrobble), or some other issue. But I’m working on it. If I get my Android car stereo system, I’ll have a map program in there.

Right now I am switching between my Garmin standalone device and putting my phone on a mount and using that. Both have their problems. I’d really like a dedicated device. I hope that there’d really be a market for it and I think Zitron has some good ideas.

I think it would be even better, of course, if they were actually talking directly to the car companies. More and more of them are working towards devices with interfaces and apps. But they’re proprietary. I don’t see a whole lot of great reasons that they shouldn’t be using established OSes with an established app-base. But absent that, I’d be more than happy to have a device propped up on the dashboard while being able to keep my phone in its holster.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I am confused. My Motorola Atrix 2 phone has excellent GPS capabilities. Here’s a demo of an older Atrix and its GPS capabilities.

    • My Samsung S3 has good GPS, too. I am talking about a standalone device, though (or better yet a car stereo system) with the GPS system and Android so that my phone doesn’t have to double as a GPS (and media player).

      • Such a device is easily enough built, I suppose. It would have to be provided with enough of a phone to support data transport and mapping, though.

        • Mapping uses prodigious amounts of bandwidth. Plan on purchasing a big data package.

  2. Somewhat of a tangent, but:

    Our local paper had a ‘police log’ report last week of a missing horse; apparently the rider’s cell phone was in a saddle bag. The police contacted the cell phone company, and they were able to pinpoint the location of the horse.

    Now, why do I find this disturbing? And if your cellphone can already do that, why would you need another device?

    • Manufacturers, service providers, and police are all generally quiet about this because it freaks people out when they learn it. But reverse-tracking like this has been standard equipment in phones for years now.

      I’m told (by “they,” so take that for what it’s worth) that there is even limited functionality if the phone is turned off.

      • Couple of weeks ago, we were at a party with a bunch of network security folk. Conversation turned to how one would ‘run away’ if the need arose.

        They all pretty much agreed; throw your phone in the back of your neighbors pick-up truck. Don’t take it with you.

        • It’s probably pretty easy to be a bum, still, in rural areas. Show up, and go be Amish.

        • Well its clear that turning the phone off, or if paranoid, taking the battery out would prevent one from being tracked. Now if one wanted to disappear, one could buy a disposable cell phone and just turn it on when needed.
          I never understand why turning the cell phone off is not mentioned, after all cell phones do come with voice messaging, and to boot compared to an old land line will tell you who called for missed calls.

  3. Oh, smartphones. Is there any industry you can’t kill?

      • Sure, and the horse in Zic’s comment can be steered back to the stable with it.

  4. Then all you’ll need is a heads up display on the windshield that doesn’t obscure your vision or distract your focus on the road. I’ve got to believe that’s possible, if not yet, then in the near future.

    • I’d implement it in synthetic vision, much as aircraft use millimetre wave radars on approach. Contemplate a long series of rectangles. To stay on course, you drive “through” each rectangle on the roadway. At the off ramp, you’d “see” the rectangles on it: drive through each one in turn and you remain on track.

      • That’s along the lines of what I was thinking of, although I don’t know anything about it other than a few pictures I’ve seen.

        I just want something better than to be driving along at 4o mph while my mom says, “You’re going to turn left…uhhh…uhhh….NOW!”

      • I have a feeling that *anything* painted on the windshield is a very tricky place to go, since this would make driving more difficult. I’ll ask a friend who knows.

          • It’s cool, and obviously I like the idea, but I suspect driverless cars will diminish its utility before it becomes really widespread.

          • There’s an old joke in robotics, I’ve probably told it before around here.

            In the distant future, technology will have advanced to the point where aircraft can fly from here to there without any pilot input. The computers will optimise for fuel consumption, they’ll avoid troublesome weather systems, the works.

            But people won’t trust those systems. They’ll only fly if there’s a human being in the cockpit, a trained pilot who can take over and fly the aircraft manually, should a problem arise. Airline policy will forbid him from touching the controls under normal circumstances.

            Alongside the automagickal guidance systems, another technology will emerge. Border collies will be specially trained to ride along in the cockpit with the pilot. Should the pilot fall asleep, the dog is trained to bite the pilot in the gonadic regions.

            I’ve been around robotics quite a while. Many of the subsystems are meant to keep people from getting damaged by the robot. Here’s a case in point: to operate some of my robots, the user has to simultaneously depress two spring buttons, one on either side of the robot, thus keeping both hands out of the robot’s work field. This is a Collie Dog routine.

          • BP,

            Is there the possibility of a windshield that reads your eyes and based on where/how you are looking, bring up or take down the visual? For instance, if you are focused far field, it disappears, but if you look specifically at the windshield, it emerges?

          • Yeah. It’s a parallax problem. Apache Longbow has solved for this. Problem is, you have to wear an IHAADS helmet to do this. Furthermore, you need to calibrate the helmet in 3D space.

        • I was driving with a friend from Idaho yesterday, and noticed he’d mounted a pad on the dashboard for his GPS unit. I asked him why he’d bothered, instead of still having it stuck to his windshield Because in Idaho, he said, it’s illegal to have anything attached to the windshield because it can block your view. But, I asked, doesn’t having the unit sticking up from your dashboard right in front of the windshield block your view just as much? J@m3z, he answered (yes, he pronounced it correctly), why do you think I hate government so much?

          • The regulators’ mission is to ensure that there are no accidents that are a result of driver view obscuration by windshield-mounted equipment. And it’s easier to determine compliance with “nothing on the windshield” than it is to determine the degree of view obscuration, distraction, etcetera for every individual driver-vehicle combination. Thus, blanket bans on anything mounted to the windshield.

          • it’s easier to determine compliance

            Yeah, I know. I’ve got a big beef with policies that focus on what’s easy to measure, rather than figuring our how to measure what matters. It’s a problem across the policy spectrum.

  5. Several weeks ago when Mrs. Likko and I flew out to Chicago to visit with family before Leaguefest, we rented a Cooper Mini at the airport. I found my phone had been inadvertently left on while on the flight — one of the many apps had not received my confirmation that yes, I wanted the app to shut down when I turned the phone off, so the phone remained on the entire flight awaiting my instruction to complete the shutdown cycle — so the battery was low.

    So the Mini has a USB port and I had a USB cable for charging the phone and that seemed ideal for navigating out of Chicago and up to Wisconsin while charging up the phone too. The very first thing the Mini did upon plugging in to the Android phone was fry out the pleasant voice module and the second thing it did was disable the voice recognition. The GPS still worked and so did the navigation software in Google Maps but the phone continued to lose battery, because the trickle of power from the car’s UBS was not enough to overcome the charge needed to operate the GPS and the navigation software. Fortunately, by the time we got on the Eisenhower, I knew my way from there, which was good because that was right when the battery ran out.

    It took about half an hour of fiddling around with the phone the next day before I got my speech module and voice recognition back.

  6. An advantage a dedicated GPS has over Google maps navigation – it works when you have no network access or reception.

    Yes, Google’s servers do a pretty bang-up job of figuring out a sensible route. But when you can’t communicate with them because mobile data is inaccessible, the map is just a scrollable, zoomable, picture, with a pin showing your location. You can figure out a route in your head, but the app on your phone has no apparent insight into which of the lines it so nicely renders on the screen denote streets, bike trails, or obstacles to navigation.

    • Having recently travelled into the mountains of New York in a region that had no cell phone service (there were literally extended portions where the phone either read “Roaming”, which I didn’t know still existed, or simply “No Service”… how this happens within a 3 hour drive of Manhattan boggles the mind). My wife drove up separately and independently to meet me there and had she not had a GPS, there is no way her cell phone navigation would have gotten her there.

      • Line of sight, Kazzy. I don’t trust cell phones more than ten minutes from a trailhead.

    • Its worth noting that there are offline map options for Android. I’ve been road testing Copilot, Sygic, NavFree, MapFactor, and Skobbler with varying degrees of success. None as good as GoogleNav, but some better than others and all allow you to turn off days while driving.

  7. This will be a good idea when Google stops insisting that streambeds filled with water are in fact roads.
    (also, stop sending the googlemobile up alleys. how did you even fit in there? ah, robotics, I see).

    • Actually more generally one needs to think about what a gps tells one, recall stories of trucks being sent down country lanes in the UK, and getting stuck, and/or being sent to where a to low overpass is and getting really stuck. Or the story of how the folks ended up in Rowland Nv (although it was never reported if a GPS was used), but the guy disappeared and his wife almost died after they got stuck.
      One always needs to think to see if the suggestions of the GPS really make sense. (In the UK at least the road number tells one the importance of the road, A roads are larger and more Important than B roads, and M roads are freeways (to use the US term)

    • “This will be a good idea when Google stops insisting that streambeds filled with water are in fact roads.”

      hehe, yeah. This happens up in Maine a *lot*.

      “Where are we going?”
      “Google says it’s a road!”
      “There are tree limbs scraping ALL FOUR SIDES OF THE CAR.”
      “Oh, whatever, it’s a rental!”

  8. What’s the problem with traditional GPSs e.g., Garmen?

    • Doesn’t sync with my contacts (where I have addresses stored) . Doesn’t do anything but GPS (no media player). Map updates on my current Garmin cost almost as much as the device itself (though I do see ads for free updates on more current devices).

      • I understand the desire to have a gps which can easily have all your contacts. But sometimes devices that just do one thing, like gps, are better since they have fewer tradeoffs to try to be everything. I’m leery of any one or two devices doing every job. You often just get one device that does everything poorly. But i don’t even have a smart phone so maybe i just haven’t been converted yet.

        • There I hear ya. Only one of the five or so offline mapping programs are as good as the aging Garmin, but the tech is there for all of them to be superior despite being able to do many other things.

          Personally I don’t want to have to use my phone as the GPS device, hence my complaining, but not really for technical shortcomings. I just don’t want to have to keep s setting up the phone. Ideally, I want am Android device in the dashboard like a car stereo system.

          • See, this is where my slow tech adoption curve is exposed. I only got an iPhone after 8 days without power during Sandy. That was last November. Before that, I actively avoided smart phones. I get the convenience of multi-tasking devices but I don’t yet feel inconvenienced by single-task devices so I don’t have the urge that you do. We have just one GPS for two cars so sometimes I’m left using my phone, but find that far more troublesome given no mount for it.

          • To go further, sometimes I’ll read people complaining about how the iPhone can’t do X but Droids can ergo the former is shit. I often don’t even know what X is but marvel about how I can add something to our food shopping reminder list on the pre-installed app and it will cloud with Zazzy’s and she’ll pickup my popsicles.

          • cloud with Zazzy’s and she’ll pickup my popsicles.

            Does that mean what I think it does, or do I just have a dirty mind?

          • I would still be using my old Razr phlip phone were it not for an unfortunate incident in rural New Mexico where the Razr fell into an unflushed toilet. How I grieved over that phone.

          • I knew you East Coast liberals were all perverts.

          • Heh, I am still rockin’ my RAZR. My wife wants me to get a smart phone but I continue to hold out.

          • Aitch,

            Didn’t you see my spirited defense of dog fucking over on Murali’s post?

          • Kazzy, believe it or not, I was relatively late to smartphones among my peers and I only made the transition reluctantly. Basically, an employer had an outdated security policy that forbade PDAs but did not forbid smartphones. I was a PDA user at the time almost solely for media (listening to audiobooks and such). As it happened, the job itself was working on smartphones, which gave me a perfect opportunity to try a few of them out risk-free and decide that I wanted to make that leap.

            Vikram has emails from me talking about how I didn’t need a smartphone because I was just fine with my two devices (the phone and the PDA)… and then me a few months later talking about how cool it is to have the smartphone. (Though at that point I didn’t even have a data plan. I resented efforts to force me to have a data plan. Then I got a data plan. Now it’s hard to imagine going back.

            I’ve become quite the fan of having synced information. It is, for me, one of the really nice things about Android/Google. I’m sure that Apple has something similar, but since I already use Google services it’s allowed me to incorporate into my phone stuff that I am already doing. And an increased desire to have it shared across more and more of my devices.

            To go further, sometimes I’ll read people complaining about how the iPhone can’t do X but Droids can ergo the former is shit.

            Oh, pay no attention to that. Most of the time – even when I do it – it’s just chestbeating. There isn’t a smartphone on the market today that isn’t pretty great.

          • See… I don’t even know what a PDA is versus a smart phone. Aren’t they the same?

            My technology adoption, especially with phones, follows a funny path. I didn’t have a cell phone in high school, which wasn’t so weird, as some kids still had just pagers and a few had phones. But when I left for college, that was pretty much when everyone got one. Except for me. I didn’t see the need. After freshmen year, I did get one, but ONLY to serve as a phonebook. When I lived back at home, those were still the days before you had to dial an area code and I could remember most of my friends’ phone numbers (especially since they all started with one of 3 or 4 extensions). In college, kids had all sorts of area codes and extensions and remembering a 10-digit number proved too difficult. So I had all the numbers written down on a single slip of paper I carried with me everywhere… until I lost it. So I got a phone largely to organize the numbers.

            As time went on, I gradually upgraded phones, to include such things as color screens and limited web access, but avoided ever needing a data plan. The one thing I did wish I could do was sync; I can be a bit anal about scheduling things (in part because I’m forgetful) and having all of that synced is really, really helpful. But I balked at paying $30+ a month for that.

            After Sandy, when Zazzy and I had to share her iPhone, often with her leaving it behind with me when she went to work (my school was closed for a week), we realized there had to be a better way. So we got me an iPhone, right around the time Verizon offered the share everything plan which allowed us to do it for cheaper than before.

            What sort of pisses me off about the evolution of phone technology is that everyone touts the new features as obvious upgrades over prior features, after doing the exact same thing with previous one, until it all circles back upon itself.

            For instance, “slab” phones were what we initially had. And that was cool. But then we got flip phones and if you had a slab phone, man, you sucked. THEN we got slide phones and only weirdos had flip phones. Now we are back to slab phones and anyone with a slide phone looks like a putz. Also, you used to get mocked for having a big, Zack Morris-y phone. Now, companies advertise just how big their phones are. I understand why this happens, but I don’t exactly need a commercial with some hipster douche in it trying to make me feel like a spaz for having the phone he was just hocking a few years earlier.

            Apple has their iCloud service, which allows us (both Zazzy and I) to sync our phones with our tablets with our desktop with our laptop. It isn’t perfect, but is a built-in App that does work across all devices and helps us stay organized. To me, that is the biggest benefit, especially as we attempt to coordinate not two but three lives.

      • Doesn’t sync with my contacts

        Now that would be an incredible heads up display.

      • I took a look at this problem about two years ago. The application was for a non-emergency transport system operating in rural Wisconsin. Think van taxi service for handicapped people. At least three legs to each trip: outbound from the van shed to the pick-up site, then the billable run to the drop-off site, then a third leg back to the shed. That’s optimally inefficient, you’d more likely hang around at the drop-off site then create another billable leg back to the pick-up site.

        Lots of the terrain out here isn’t covered by 3g or 4g data signal. I can ask a cell phone to transmit its GPS coordinates back to the shed, lots of trucking firms have a tracker of that sort. But what if the van (and therefore the phone) has no data connection?

        That’s kinda where I stopped investigating it any further. I did investigate the Google routing API but beyond mapping the legs of the proposed route, I did nothing further with it.

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