Computerized navigation is common enough today to be almost passé, if it wasn’t so useful. It’s been 20 years since the U.S. market was initially given the option to have one installed on a new car, from the factory.
If you don’t already know which company was first, the answer may surprise you.
On my 16th birthday, coinciding with having earned a driver’s license, I was given a Thomas Guide. A rite of passage but also an indispensable tool stored under many a car seat clear back in nineteen-hundred and eighty… uh, well, it was a time when factory-installed navigation units for vehicles were only possible in the movies. However, during roughly the same period, the feature was already becoming available in other markets, for example Japan.
However, by the end of the 1980s, Oldsmobile had already partnered with Delco Electronics and Zexel USA (an automotive components supplier). Together, they produced the Oldsmobile Navigation/Information System (ONIS) which officially debuted to the public in early 1994. But not for purchase.
The ONIS had been developed over a five-year period, with a strong emphasis on operational simplicity. Thus, Oldsmobile wanted to first test it out. So, they teamed with yet another company, Avis Rent A Car, to put the system through its paces and help gauge consumer reaction.
Avis reported reactions so positive that, by September 28, 1994, it was officially added to Oldsmobile’s 1995 factory options list but it was wearing a new name: Guidestar (technically “GUIDESTAR” but shouting is tiring). Moreover, there were a few restrictions to contend with.
The rental fleet test had been conducted on a narrow target, using the Eighty Eight LSS and only in San Jose, California. By the time it was available for production, it could be ordered on any Eighty Eight model. However, it was still limited to California only. That was because, by that point in time, California had already been mapped out and was available on “cartridge” (which included supplemental data on Las Vegas).
Showing how rapidly the industry was advancing, by early 1995, maps of about a dozen additional states were available. Oldsmobile’s product availability, subsequently, spread to those areas. Interestingly, at the time, Oldsmobile said that national availability would work in tandem with mapping of the entire U.S. which was expected to be completed by 1996.
Mechanically, the unit was pretty impressive, considering the times. Remember, we were still using Windows 3.1 (Windows 95 didn’t launch until late August of 1995). The head unit included a four-inch color LCD screen and the aforementioned buttons which were backlit. I’m still fond of the soft-rubber, backlit buttons that were on many phones of the ’90s.
The bracket that it was mounted on was adjustable and the head unit was removable to prevent theft. It’s important to note that the head unit was removable, not the entire Guidestar unit because that involved an on-board computer which was located “unobtrusively” in the trunk, along with requisite wiring harnesses and an antenna mounted at the rear.
The computer monitored four types of information: signals from the antenna, vehicle road speed, direction of travel and signals from an internal gyroscope. Oldsmobile documentation says that the precise location of the vehicle was established by “advanced dead reckoning techniques and GPS inputs.”
Now for the elephant in the room. As with any new technology, it wasn’t cheap. At introduction, the unit, installation, and a “California database cartridge” had a suggested retail price of $1,995. A hefty price increase for checking that option box, considering the Eighty Eights ran from about $20,000 to $25,000.