Strong opinions, weakly held

Why car GPS isn’t upgradeable

Michael Parekh notices that Harman and Mercedes are working on building an upgradeable navigation system for cars. As the article points out, car navigation systems are ridiculously expensive and obsolete the day the cars leave the factory:

From the initial details, it’s not clear if Harman has advanced the state of the art or offered automakers a short-term BandAid fix while they figure out why their navigation devices cost two to 10 times as much as portable navigation devices (PNDs). Traditional automaker navigation (as on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, photo above) costs $1,500 to $2,000.

The cheapest is $1,250, from Hyundai. Update discs cost well on the high side of $100. And a built-in device reflects technology that’s several years old (and can’t be upgraded other than maps). Automakers say they’re held to higher standards than what buyers expect from $200 PNDs. With factory-installed navigation, the controls are integrated, there are no cords that clutter the cockpit, and the windshield isn’t obstructed.

I never realized how much better the portable units are until I rode in my brother in law’s brand new Acura a couple of years ago. Everything about my basic Garmin unit was better than the built in unit in a very nice luxury car. This is a problem.

In an ideal world, there would be an industry standard GPS API in car navigation units and firmware that would allow upgrades. Then Magellan, Garmin, and perhaps even Google could offer aftermarket GPS software that runs on the standard platform. As it stands now, if I were buying a new car I’d look for cars without navigation so as not to be left with a system as anachronistic as the built in car phone in my coworker’s 1998 BMW a few years down the road.

The question is, why hasn’t such a standard been established? I can think of a few reasons:

  • Lack of cooperation among automakers. They don’t want to work together on such a standard.
  • Planned obsolescence. Car manufacturers want to sell new cars. Making it easy for customers to upgrade the functionality of cars they already own is bad for business.
  • Integration challenges. Most built-in navigation systems provide other functionality specific to the cars they’re in. Decoupling the navigation functionality from the other functionality in the car computer requires extra engineering work.

I’m not holding my breath.


  1. Your post and this post showed up in my feedreader at the same time. Kismet!

  2. We’re looking for a new car right now, and I was actually just wondering to friends why an automaker hasn’t gotten together with Garmin or TomTom and agreed on a mount form factor (or even just put USB form-factor power up on the top of the dashboard).

    It’s sad to see automakers wanting to charge $2k for features that our $129 TomTom does better, but it’s even sadder when you see the state of the nav system in the Prius, that big glorious display and the nav system looks like it escaped from the ’90s.

    And your point about obsolescence of the car phone is a good one, makes me think a bit about how much extra we want to pay for BlueTooth integration in the stereo…

  3. Car dealers are in the business of finding 1 sucker to finance 10 normal sales, and they make their meat off of options. Is it possible dealers drive these options offerings towards flashy and expensive bloat that appeals to the least informed consumer, expecting savvy customers to simply go with aftermarket alternatives?

    Also, for anyone buying a car, check out the Ignite Seattle video by Rob Gruhl.

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