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Road navigator is off course

Clever marketers know how to employ just the right buzzwords to tap into our deepest needs and desires and get us to buy, buy, buy. And when it comes to targeting navigationally challenged drivers such as myself, it's hard to imagine a more powerful enticement than these four simple words: "Never get lost again!"

That's the irresistible pitch of the AutoPilot, a hand-held "talking road navigator" that promises a successful motoring experience for the legions of us who wouldn't dare ask another human for help in determining where on earth we are and how to get to where on earth we're going.

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A needed product

My kids will tell you how desperately I could use a product such as this. But sadly, a few weeks with the AutoPilot has left me feeling decidedly off course.

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It's a shame because there's a solid premise behind this calculator-size device. The $39.95 AutoPilot has exit-by-exit information for 70,000 hotels, restaurants, gas stations, campgrounds, malls, hospitals and other businesses scattered along interstates and a handful of other highways in the continental United States.

It also has rudimentary town-to-town directions for 250 major cities, along with phone numbers for auto-service clubs and hotel chains. There's even a pre-trip checklist.

It sounds pretty handy. But under real-world conditions I found the AutoPilot somewhat difficult to use, beset by a few glitches and often disappointingly incomplete.

For starters, this AutoPilot definitely requires a co-pilot. Finding the nearest gas station, for example, requires pressing a minimum of nine buttons.

Try that while you're driving at highway speeds and you might end up using the AutoPilot to find a tow truck. And if you do your driving after dark, the device is that much less convenient. To use it safely, you'll need to pass this one to a passenger - or pull over.

Design flaws

The AutoPilot is counterintuitive at times, and it suffers from a few design flaws, chief among them: no "off" button. (Shutting it down requires pressing the "on" button, followed by the "X" and the "S." Who designed that?) I also found one electronic gremlin that repeatedly misread my location on one highway by as much as 90 miles.

And that "never get lost again" pledge? As a map substitute, the AutoPilot is a joke. For its city-to-city directions, the choice of routes is sometimes questionable, and the level of detail is woefully inadequate.

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Matthew Kauffman is a columnist for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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