by Peter Gauvin
In the car of the not-so-distant future, drivers will be able to pull off the interstate in some unfamiliar town and get turn-by-turn directions to the nearest four-star restaurant without ever unfolding a cumbersome road map or asking a gas station attendant. A display screen on the dashboard will give motorists instructions through arrows, text instructions, or voice output. And if desired, drivers may even be able to find out the restaurant's daily specials.
That capability is not some crystal ball scenario but right around the corner, according to Etak, Inc., a Menlo Park company that is a world leader in the design of digital maps and software.
Founded in 1983 and located in the Willows Business Park, Etak is a pioneering provider of electronic road maps and application tools for the retrieval and display of maps and geographic data. Its databases cover the entire U.S. and Japan, as well as metropolitan areas in Europe.
The technology has been in widespread commercial use for several years in such areas as marine and aircraft navigation, fleet management, and emergency vehicle operations. Now it is beginning to enter the general consumption market.
What makes a digital map any better than your garden-variety, foldable paper map?
"It will tell you where you are, where the nearest gas station, restaurant or hospital is, and tell you how to get there," said Alan Norman, vice president and general manager of Etak's automotive products division.
The technology can tell motorists where they are down to the street and block by using the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of between 20 and 30 satellites sent aloft by the Department of Defense and used extensively by commercial aircraft, shipping lines and surveyors. Using four satellites, GPS can determine the address range of the block the driver is on, Norman said.
More than a million electronic navigation units are already in use in Japan, where companies that license Etak's mapping software and databases sell their products as consumer products like refrigerators and VCRs, he said. In Europe, where street navigation is a greater challenge, the product is now an option on some more expensive makes of cars.
"It will take a couple of years before it is in widespread use in the U.S. Prices are still too high," Norman said. "But no one can ignore the U.S. market because it is so large."
ETAK is a wholly-owned subsidiary of News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch's global media empire that includes 20th Century Fox Studios, Fox Broadcasting Company, TV Guide, The Times in Great Britain and Harper Collins Publishers.
What's the connection there?
Well, Murdoch's corporation is focused on publishing in a variety of forms, from newspaper to film, and believes digital mapping and the information it can carry is the next frontier of publishing.
"It's a natural extension. It gets into electronic media and publishing information. That's the tie that binds all this together," Norman said.
"It's going to provide a whole new advertising medium," said Howard Kock, vice president of marketing.
Murdoch bought Etak in 1989 from founder Stan Honey, who has stayed on with the company. Etak now has more than 200 employees and all of its operations are centered in Menlo Park, including manufacturing.
Etak licenses its technology and databases to such companies as General Motors, Robert Bosch GmbH, Clarion, Sony, Kenwood, Motorola and Michelin.
Avis Car Rental is starting to use the technology on a trial basis to keep track of its cars, and an ambulance company in Albuquerque, N.M. has used the technology since 1987.
Using Etak databases, Sony reportedly will soon introduce an in-vehicle navigation system for the U.S. consumer market that incorporates GPS technology, destination information and moving maps.
Etak has published a software package designed especially for consumer auto navigation systems called the EtakGuide, which includes an extensive library of travel and tourist information gathered from Fodor's Travel Publications.
It provides detailed descriptions and reviews of parks, hotels, shops, restaurants, arts and cultural facilities, special events, sports, night life, airports, natural resources, etc. Photos and sound enhance many of the descriptions for a true multimedia experience.
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