Getting Back to Your Routes
Truck-specific GPS models continue to improve
By Paul Abelson
How did we ever get along without these things?
Modern technology has brought so many conveniences to truck cabs, it’s hard to know where to start. Back in the ’70s, CB radio changed the way drivers communicated. A generation ago, professional drivers lined up in truckstops to use the public phones to check in with dispatchers and to call in for loads. Along came Qualcomm, and drivers got communications right in their cabs. Dispatch knew where the loads were and where you were. Loads came in from sales and global positioning technology told your Qualcomm where you were. That information was sent to your company. You no longer lost time waiting to phone in.
Microelectronics freed cellular telephones from being fixed to the cab or tethered to battery packs. Phones can now be carried in a pocket. In fact, even the largest truckstops have cut back their public phones. Customers now have their own.
Similar advances made global positioning systems (GPS) practical. In fact, as phones got smarter, GPS applications were added to “smart” cell phones; those with functions like computer access.
When drivers discovered GPS units sized for use in cabs, they quickly tried them. Some immediately ran into trouble. Early GPS databases and software were compiled for mass market users — drivers in cars. Truck restrictions were not considered. Drivers following directions for cars found themselves driving on truck-restricted roads. Routes included bridges with weight restrictions. And worst of all, physical barriers like low bridges and tunnels were not recognized, leading trucks to have trailer roofs sardine-canned, peeled back by the bridge girders.
Truck route software has long been available for computers. Pioneered by ALK Technologies’ PC*Miler, truck-specific mapping allowed dispatchers to help their drivers avoid these hazards. Those with laptops could plan their own routes accordingly. But truckers wanted more. They wanted the same convenience that passenger car drivers now have; small-size, dashboard mounted units that provide turn-by-turn directions with visual aids. And that’s what the new generation GPS models for professional truck drivers provides — and then some.
Global positioning is a military technology using signals from 24 active satellites, each orbiting the earth twice daily. They orbit about 12,000 miles above the earth. Using solar power for their electricity, they transmit electronic signals continuously. The GPS receivers identify the signals from at least four satellites and determine the receiver’s precise location by calculating time to receive signals. Microelectronics enable accuracy to about three meters, or 10 feet. What happens next depends on the hardware and software of each receiver.
In general, each unit has a database of all streets and highways, and such points of interest as municipal facilities, truckstops and service locations, gas stations, food, shopping and more. A GPS receiver compares the location information it calculates from the satellites and identifies your location in the database. When you provide a destination or request a point of interest, the chips compute locations and distances, then present routing in a graphic format.
For trucks, the databases know restrictions and calculate the most efficient (shortest or fastest) route to avoid them. Early receivers for trucks recognized two types of vehicles: cars and 80,000 pound 18-wheelers. But we all know there are various types of trucks between pickups (restricted on some routes), and Class 8. For example, a bridge may be restricted to 20,000 pounds, so Class 5s are allowed but Class 6s are prohibited. Today’s GPS receivers for trucks know the difference.
Size is a major variable for all makes. You will want something large enough to read easily and still present all the information the device provides. With smaller screens, you may have to give up some information or choose between displays of speed, distance to destination or time of arrival. If your unit will be mounted near the center of the windshield in a big rig, a 7-inch screen will be fine, but if you’ll be using a GPS in a light truck, too, the 7-inch may be too large to use close to you. A 4.3- or 5-inch may be a good size for mixed use, but before buying, do some research to find out what the display trade-offs might be.
Placement is critical. Screens are sensitive to ambient light. When I tested four of the most popular truckers’ GPS units, I found that sunlight caused screen glare, sometimes making it unreadable. I had my best results positioning the units high on the windshield, in the shadow of the upper console or, in a pickup, under the roof. The worst was low on the dashboard, exposed to light from all sides.
The units I tried are in alphabetical order, below. All were similar in function, yet each had its own distinctive features. And each had its own navigation errors, due to out-of-date portions of its roadway database. Most of the (few) errors I did find were due to highway rebuilding, although some “new” configurations were open several months before my test units were sent out.
Space doesn’t permit reviewing every feature of each unit, but here are a few highlights.
Cobra 7750 Platinum
I liked the large-screen graphic of lane choices at exits and complex lane configurations. While all units had lane representations and recommendations, the Cobra’s Junction View with Lane Assist had the most realistic 3-D representation. It tracks state-by-state miles for fuel tax reporting. It also helps track driving hours by state by category: on-duty, driving and off-duty. The Cobra has audio and visual alerts for speed and red light cameras, dangerous intersections and known speed traps.
Cobra uses data from ProMiles Software Development Corporation. The 7750 Platinum includes three months of unlimited downloads from the AURA Camera & Driving Database. It has one female voice for each language: Canadian French, American Spanish and English.
Garmin nuvi 465T
Garmin uses the Autoroute DEM Basemap database. There are several voice options for languages, including male and female voices in Canadian French, Mexican Spanish and three variations of English: North America, Australian and British.
A Proximity Points feature lets you customize and add points of interest, such as red light cameras, to the alert system. The NTTS (National Truck and Trailer Services) Breakdown Directory is on the nuvi, with emergency breakdown resources just two or three touches away. There are free lifetime traffic and route updates.
Speed limits are displayed for all but minor roads, but there are no over-speed alerts.
PC*Miler Navigator 450
All PC*Miler units use the ALK PC*Miler database. I found the Navigator the least intuitive unit of the four, but once you take some time with the 80-page instruction booklet, navigating the Navigator becomes easy. With close to four hours operation with a fully charged battery, the 4.3-in Navigator adapts to use when walking or riding a bicycle as well as use in cars, RVs, motorcycles and, of course, trucks. It’s small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. You can plug in an ear bud to get voice directions.
The ClearTurn feature displays lane configurations and gives recommendations. You can program it to display from three miles to 0.2 miles from the exit or intersection. I found two miles at highway speeds is enough to maneuver into the proper lane. You can select voices for audio directions, with one male and three female Spanish voices, two male and two female French voices with different dialects, eight U.K. English voices and three U.S. English voices. Not all voices are programmed with text-to-speech, needed to speak street names.
Rand McNally Intelliroute TND 700
Rand McNally’s 7-inch Intelliroute TND 700 has a wide screen that displays more trip data than others, once you learn where to look. Its stylus is in the bracket.
The Intelliroute uses Rand McNally’s proprietary database which, if experience with their road atlases holds, could take time to update for new construction. Where this GPS shines is the “timers” page. It records driving hours and on-duty hours daily, and the on-duty work week with two odometers, two maintenance interval timers and average speeds for two trips. Home, local and destination times are displayed.
Alert distances and times are programmable, from zero miles on up for hills and sharp curves, to time to running-out-of-hours, in quarter-hour increments. Programmable alerts also include weigh stations, toll booths, construction, state borders and speed limit changes. 3-D lane guidance with a sign post display simplifies exiting highways. There’s even a feature to let you communicate with Rand McNally when you log on to take advantage of the free upgrades.
I was impressed with the on-the-road convenience and functionality of all the GPS units. You should do your homework and decide which unit most matches your needs. You’ll soon find it as convenient and necessary as your cell phone, and you won’t leave home without one.