GadgetGuy has been pondering the future of portable car GPS navigation and dashcams. We have reviewed (and are reviewing) several models and looking at the impact of smartphones on these.

To probe the future of portable car GPS navigation and dashcams, we spoke to Wendy Hammond, Managing Director of Navman Australia and NewZealand. This article is an amalgam of GadgetGuy’s experience and Wendy’s insider knowledge.

GadgetGuy has seen the market contracting since about 2015 when smartphone navigation reached a level of usable maturity

Sales of portable in-car GPS navigation units from Navman, Garmin, TomTom, Uniden, Magellan and generic brands have tanked. Dashcams are selling OK, but several factors could see a resurgence in both.

Smartphones are smaller, lighter, and map software (Google Maps and Here) is getting better. Plus – everyone has one. The result – the traditional GPS navigation industry is being eaten by software!

But late in 2017 along came tough new smartphone laws in Australia that makes it illegal (in some states) to even to look at it while driving – let alone touch a smartphone in the car. And it is totally illegal for Learners, P-1 and P2 platers and motorcyclists to even have their phone on their person.

Regardless of differing state laws this article outlines what you can and cannot do and you need to know that unless your phone is in a proper cradle affixed to the windscreen or dash, you can be fined for just ‘thinking’ about using it.

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Smartphones may have good mapping software, but they are often useless as real-time navigation devices.

GadgetGuy reviews smartphones – dozens each year. One of our tests is to see what their responsiveness and accuracy are when used in-car in an approved cradle. We typically find several things.

Too much lag to be useful

  • On all except the higher-powered flagship phones, the CPU/GPU is incapable of both running the phone as well as the GPS and refreshing the screen in real-time.
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What that means for lower cost smartphones is verbal, or screen instructions are typically issued at the very last minute or too late to make a safe turn. Recalculation of routes is also slow. I don’t know about you, but I find this dangerous and totally unacceptable.

Too much battery drain

  • A GPS drains the battery very quickly. It places a near 100% load on CPU/GPU and 100% screen-on time, and that means the battery will flatten in a matter of hours. Some popular mid-range and lower cost smartphones get less than 2 hours use on a charge.
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Sure, you can plug a smartphone into the car cigarette lighter socket, but most adapters don’t have enough amperage to keep it going in GPS mode, let alone charge the battery. So you end up with a smartphone you can’t use as one!

And don’t forget that temperatures inside locked, parked car can reach 70° – a smartphone is held together by hot melt glue that starts to melt at 50°.

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Poor daylight screen readability

  • Unless you have a flagship AMOLED screen with very high brightness (at least 400 nits and almost infinite contrast) and low screen reflectivity, then the typical smartphone is damned hard to see in daylight or direct sunlight. I have tried with everything from cheapies to $1000+, and all LCD screens suffer in daylight.
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Top – LCD screen in bright daylight. Bottom OLED in same conditions.

Limited driver assistance or navigation smarts

  • Smartphone navigation software does not have the level of driver assistance, landmark navigation, complex intersection pictures and so many more things we take for granted to get from A to B. Soon Google Maps will have speed camera information. Big deal – in-car GPS has had that for years!

At best, using your smartphone is a stopgap measure. Almost every time I have tried, it has ended in tears, especially when your smartphone runs out of power much sooner than you think. The cradles are usually cheap, break easily and often fall off potentially damaging your smartphone.

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Pretty basic!

Dedicated in-car GPS has the power for real-time processing, daylight readable screens, and won’t lose your licence if you touch them!

GadgetGuy spoke to Wendy Hammond, managing director, Navman Australia and New Zealand.

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Wendy has been with Navman since 2006 and has seen the industry start and take off only to falter with smartphone adoption and then take off again after legislation made GPS a more practical option.

Q: What is the state of the in-car portable GPS market?

WH: A steady but slow decline for some years – today it is probably about 30% of what it was five years ago in terms of volume of sales – but we’ve seen a noticeable pick-up over the past 12 months from the new Australian laws from 2018 onwards regarding smartphone use in a car.

Q: Why the decline – I mean we all need navigation?

WH: Two parts to answer – there are more new cars on the road than five years ago and almost 40% come with factory fitted GPS, and also there is the rise of the smartphone. 

That said, once many new car drivers use the factory fitted GPS  they soon realise it is not as good as a portable device and often prohibitively expensive to update maps, they come back to a standalone GPS device.

Then there are Smartphones.  The Australian market is expected to reach 75% penetration by 2022 of the Australian phone market compared with 43.7% ten years earlier. Yes, they get you from A to B, and they are convenient. However it is not their core function and the experience a stand-alone device will give is far superior. Not to mention the fact it is legal to use a GPS.

But of course, we can’t ignore these two factors have a significant influence on our sales.

Q: What is the next-gen portable GPS going to look like?

It will be more agile. Car companies focus on making cars and the process of designing, testing, manufacturing and selling can be years, which means software for things like GPS can be outdated by the time it hits the market. We can be agile and have new models and new over-the-air features within weeks, months at best.

I can’t be specific, but I can hint at a more smartphone-like format: larger, high-res, high brightness, screens yet a smaller, thinner body; better and less obtrusive magnetic windscreen and dash mounting and processing power to burn.

Some will have IoT-like 3/4G connectivity, traffic, cloud access, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and over the air updates. Let’s just say these smarts will offer far richer content and experiences than a smartphone. We are working closely with our mapping partners to provide richer content and experience.

In short portable GPS needs to bring the best navigation experience to the driver, leaving out only those things that are dependent on being part of the car itself.

Q: What will that do to the cost?

WH: We’ll need to determine that.  Unlike mobile phones, GPS devices are more affordable, however strangely consumers expect them to last for many more years than they would anticipate from their smartphone, so there is a perception that there is less utility and therefore less value in your GPS. 

A good quality mass-market smartphone is several times the cost of a quality GPS and typically have only half the lifespan, often less. If we can increase the features, advantages and utility of our devices as the better in-car device over mobile phones while maintaining the pricing, I think we’ll do very well.

Q: What about dashcams – have they been a saviour?

WH: The dash cam market started fairly slowly five years ago and has really accelerated in the past three. Now around half the insurance claims made include dash cam footage as evidence.

It’s becoming more sophisticated, and people are now searching for products that guarantee great quality footage, not just any old footage.  Proving fault in an insurance claim can be impossible if your evidence isn’t there – impossible to read number plates, wrong colours, poor night shots, and so on.  And some people learned this, at a cost.

At a minimum a quality dashcam needs

  • 1080p ([email protected]) and preferably 2K or 4K
  • Optical glass lens
  • HDR or Wide Dynamic Range (to fill in details in the shadows or bright areas)
  • A full GPS tracking with the ability to map overlay it (time/speed/location)
  • Lots of microSD space (more than 64GB is good) ours is 128GB
  • And a decent three-or-even four-axis sensor that can show the direction of the impact as well as the car’s direction at that time.

We were early to the idea of combining a GPS navigation device with dash cam and our Drive Duo range has been a huge hit for us.  For countries like Australia and New Zealand where there is a large market for 4WD and SUVs and a real thirst to get outback or away from the cities, products that allow people to do this – and do it safely – have been very popular.   Phones just don’t work for this type of environment – they’re often out of range in large tracts of Australia, whereas the GPS will always have you covered.

And of course, even dash cams have grown to be more than just about the camera itself.  They come with speed and safety camera alert warnings and ADAS (advanced driver assistance).  We even have a product that will continuously monitor your tyre pressure along the way – perfect for large vehicles or when you’re towing a caravan or boat.   We even have a product built especially for large truck drivers including B-Doubles, the Big Rig Duo.

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People are also buying more and more rear cameras.  These come as standard with a number of our MiVUE products, and you can purchase as an add-on.  It’s not surprising when around 30% of accidents are ‘rear-enders’.  Again, making sure that the camera is good quality, at least 1080p is key.

Q: What advances do you see in dashcams?

We’ve already come a long way with combo GPS/dash cams– especially with the ability to have higher megapixel cameras – 2K or 4K. Wi-Fi makes sense (park your car within range of a home Wi-Fi router or extender) and upload footage to a smartphone or PC, and more driver assistance like speed camera warnings, and even more ADAS features.

We’ll see easier software updates via WI-FI in future, and alerts around road conditions and advance warnings on lane change and so on to keep people even safer.

A good 2K or 4K sensor with big pixels – at least 8MP, wide aperture f/1.8 or lower, glass lenses, at least a 140° distortion-free viewing angle (higher is good, but it distorts the image too much), and decent screen to view it on.

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GadgetGuy reviewed the Drive Duo SUV here giving it 4.4-out-of-5 and calling it the best all-in-one with a great GPS and fit for purpose dash cam.

Q; Is dashcam footage admissible evidence now?

Yes, insurance companies now say that over half of the claims have dashcam evidence. Police will use it, and lawyers will use it. Sydney lawyers in this field tell us that proof often relies on the quality of the footage. 

Let’s just say that I would not want to be the person who did not have a camera, and moreover, it doesn’t make sense to me when the cost of a device is considerably lower than the cost of your insurance excess.

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Q: Last words?

We’re definitely not dead as an industry!  There are still a lot of people driving in this market, a lot of people who drive for work and a lot of recreational drivers.

Police and safety experts agree, it is distractions that cause many accidents. Which is why mobile phone use, while you are behind the wheel, will always be frowned upon, but worse, cost drivers money and their lives!  However strong your willpower, there is always the temptation to do more, even when your phone is in an approved cradle.  Don’t risk it, use a proper, good quality sat-nav and Bluetooth your phone so you can take calls.

And get the best dash cam you can with the best camera.  It’s foolhardy not to.

Navman is part of the MiTAC group which high tech manufacturing plants in Taiwan and around Asia that build incredible quality products and invest highly in R&D for the sector and working with partners we believe we’ll continue to offer products that make driving safer and less stressful.

Header image: Auto Quarterly.