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1966 in-car navigation system looks very familiar today

General Motors engineers experimented with a punch-card-based navigation system and in-car communication for roadside assistance.

Published June 22, 2012

About 45 years ago, General Motors was experimenting with a flashy new option that fit right in with the space-race craze of the 1960s.

Late in 1966, GM was working on the Driver Aid Information and Routing system, which provided navigation advice for the driver and a communication link to the outside world.

Coined DAIR, the communication link sat on the hump beside the driver, while the message centre rested on the dashboard. Little did the engineers realize they were creating the GPS and Bluetooth of their day.

Using punch-coded cards inserted into DAIR, the navigation system directed the driver. It was also capable of alerting the driver to road signs, speed limits, and hazards along the route.

And if your Olds or Chevy had a flat tire in the middle of a storm, you could use the radio-telephone to get assistance — just like today’s GM OnStar, Ford Sync or BMW Assist.

Broadcaster Walter Cronkite related his test-drive experience with DAIR in the April 1967 issue of :

“As I drove the test car, DAIR navigated for me, telling me when to go straight, turn left, turn right, and so on,” explained the famous news anchor. “Speed limits and other traffic signs flashed onto the panel activated by low-power transmitters along the way.”

Cronkite had driven on a special test track, which produced signals for the system through magnets in the roads, while the communication link was an early use of what would become the Citizen’s Band or CB radio in the next few years.

GM was not the only player is this new field. A joint project of the German government, Siemens, Volkswagen and Blaupunkt developed a system that used a combination of proximity beacons, dead-reckoning, and map-matching with in-vehicle units receiving information from beacons at the side of the road.

Other early systems included the CASC (Comprehensive Automobile Traffic Control System) from Japan, and the ETAK Navigator, which stored electronic maps, used cassettes and a compass, and was an expensive item at $1,500 in 1985.

DAIR was replaced in the late 1960s by ERGS (Experimental Route Guidance System), which consisted of an in-vehicle display and data-entry device that communicated with a roadside control unit. Using thumbwheel systems, the driver entered parameters, which the roadside unit processed and then sent routing instructions back to the car.

It is interesting to note that the vision of the GM engineers in 1966 was not far off today’s in-car navigation and communication systems.

When GPS systems became affordable in the mid-1980s, other navigational technology couldn’t compete. The first GPS system in a production car arrived in 1995, as an option for Oldsmobile, called GuideStar.

But even with today’s sophisticated systems, there is one axiom that holds true. Although GM developed DAIR to meet future traffic needs, the company warned that nothing could take the place of the driver.

“It’ll never replace good driving, but DAIR does make it easier for you to focus more attention on the road ahead,” GM stated at the time.

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