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.