Are Car Navigation Systems Useless And Should Car Makers Dump Them?

Are Car Navigation Systems Useless And Should Car Makers Dump Them?

Mar 29, 2017

Satellite navigation is an extremely useful piece of technology that plays a crucial indirect role in occupant safety too. They also help you save time and a lot of hassle that may arise from asking people for directions. However, in India, navigation has taken a long time to mature and gain acceptance. However, ever since mobile navigation, especially Google Maps has come into the picture, navigation usage has increased at a rapid pace. This doesn't come as a surprise given the benefits of Google Maps viz-a-viz the cumbersome user-interfaces of in-built navigation systems.

With such an increasing popularity of mobile maps, we often get queries from readers questioning the utility of the navigation offered by carmakers. Some people also feel that they're being forced to pay for something they don't want to use so I thought it would be a good idea to look at the pros and cons of both systems and try to find out what works better for Indians.

Navigation these days primarily comes in two forms – in-built car navigation and smart phones or portable navigation devices. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of these systems to understand better which one's more suitable for India.
In-built Navigation Pros

1) Satellite navigation systems offered by carmakers comes with a large central display, which is designed to offer maximum visibility without distracting the driver of forcing her/ him to take off their eyes off the road.

2) Since these systems have pre-loaded maps in a hard drive or an external storage device such as CD or SD card, they aren't dependent on mobile data network for operation. This means even when you've lost access to mobile signals, the navigation will continue to work and provide directions.

3) Many navigation systems are connected to other systems in a car so if you're running low on fuel and the low-fuel warning lamps comes on the map can automatically display the nearest fuel stations.

4) Since the in-built system's hardware and software resides within the car in a secure manner, you cannot end up losing it, unlike your phone.

In-built navigation Cons

1) In-built car navigations cost a considerable amount to the carmaker, which you end up paying as the consumer. While these systems come with pre-loaded maps or CDs and SD cards, updating them can be quite an expensive affair. Moreover, you cannot do it from a location of comfort at all times and might need to visit the dealership to get an update.

2) User-interface of most car navigation systems is a nightmare and it doesn't change irrespective of the car being an entry-level sedan or a luxury sedan. Entering an address, especially in India, can be quite a challenge. Some systems require you to enter the state and city first and then follow it up with street name and plot number. Numerous times, I've failed to enter an address into these systems but finding directions to the same address in Google Maps takes a few seconds only. Entering the alphabets is another task, which feels old-fashioned and is time-consuming. Voice command can be cited as a solution here but we all know how well these systems respond to the various accents in India.

Google Maps pros
1) Using a Google maps costs nothing to someone who's using a smart phone as almost all smart phones today come with Google Maps. Yes, even iPhones come with Google Maps because Apple is very confident about the performance of their maps!

2) You get live traffic updates on Google maps, which can help you avoid congested roads and reach your destination faster using alternate routes. One can also get information on the average time to cross a jam and the estimated time of reaching the destination.

3) Updating Google maps can be done over-the-air and in a span of a few minutes without having to spend any additional money.

4) Feeding an address into the system is a breeze as one doesn't even need to know the complete postal address and knowing a part of it will do in most instances. Finding even the most remote places doesn't take more than a few seconds, depending on the network speed.

5) Many infotainment systems today allow navigation data from your phone to be displayed onto your car's display screen, making it easy and safer to view the maps.

Google Maps cons

1) Google maps consume a lot of battery so unless your phone is connected to a charging socket, navigating through long city commutes too might leave your phone with little or no juice.

2) Google Maps do not work in case you're on a call so in case you've been on a long call and are approaching an intersection with no idea on where to go, don't expect the maps to give you directions.

3) Since the maps are operated through your phone, you could lose access to them if you misplace your handset.

4) In areas with low or no connectivity, Google Maps may not work properly as it requires a live data connection. However, one can now download a specified area onto the memory of the phone and use it without any network too. The navigation in this case though, will only work within the downloaded area and anything out of it might not be displayed.


While the in-built systems have cost and usability limitations and mobile phones have battery and network related limitations, one can also consider portable navigation devices. One can buy these at a cost as low as Rs 6,000 and these devices offer almost the same amount of information as found in Google Maps. These can be plugged into the 12V socket of your car, freeing your mobile phone for other purposes and can be placed anywhere inside the cabin. The only major negative with these systems is that being portable, they can be vandalised easily. In terms of offering information, all devices are at par although Google and portable devices have an edge over the car one's in the form of live updates and customisable interface.

So should carmakers dump in-car navigations?

My personal answer would be a thumping yes to many carmakers, including most luxury carmakers, who offer systems that almost necessitate a crash course to just operate the basic functions. Either I draw one letter every time on a silly touch pad or press a button to enter one alphabet every time. Even my 7-year old son thinks it's such an old and senseless system! Then comes the issue of cost, which in today's world doesn't seem justified when better things are available for free.

One can argue that in case you do not have network, Google Maps is useless and while that is largely true, how many of us today live in areas, which do not have even 2G connectivity? Video consumption on mobile devices is increasing at a tremendous rate every year, even in rural areas, proving network coverage isn't a major issue.

The best option is to offer the consumers with an option that allows users to mirror their devices on to the car screen, which is where Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come into play. These two smart connectivity software allow a user to operate their phone's screen from the car's infotainment screen. So not only can you keep your phone charged, you can view the directions without any distractions. Does this make in-built navigation systems useless? Pretty much, I'd say, especially from an Indian perspective. So unless carmakers can develop smarter and easily upgradeable systems. It'd be better to save the money spent on the navigation system and pass on the saving to the consumer. Wouldn't you prefer that?