GPS updates and improvements are coming faster and faster these days. Portable and dashboard-mounted GPS navigators are now standard in many new cars and trucks, and the uses of GPS in daily life are expanding rapidly.

Drivers now expect much more from their car GPS unit than accurate street and highway maps. They want to know speed limits, driving times, and where traffic is likely to be backed up. They want to know the location of the nearest gas station, or post office, or restaurant.

GPS technology uses signals from military satellites to pinpoint a user’s exact geographic location. But most of the time, knowing your exact latitude and longitude–in and of itself–is not particularly useful. The real value of GPS lies in the interface between the positional signal from space and the mapping software stored inside each receiver.

What does your Nuvi know?

GPS map updates contain an astonishing amount of information. Regular GPS users quickly become accustomed to having all this information at their fingertips, and often find it irritating when some detail is missing. But those driving with a GPS navigator for the first time often find it to be a remarkable experience. The device always “knows” where you are, what lies ahead, and how to get to where you are going–and it tells you.

It’s easy to forget sometimes where all that “knowledge” comes from. Information on streets, services and points of interest all has to be collected manually, by people out driving the road network, conducting surveys and recording the data. In this regard GPS maps are no different than old paper street maps. They represent a snapshot in time, and as time passes they may become out of date.

The downtown street grid of a major city may change very little over the years. But traffic patterns and driving restrictions may change. Detours and one-way designations may be put in place. Freeway on-ramps and exits may be opened or closed. In more newly developed areas the road network itself does change and expand all the time.

But roads are just the beginning. In addition to actual maps, GPS navigators contain many layers of additional information. Business and service locations stored in your GPS can change virtually overnight. New surveys can always reveal new points of interest, either because something has changed or because the particular piece of data was never collected before.

If you think about it, you probably know many ways in which your town or region has changed in just the past few years. Your GPS should know about those changes too.

GPS Map Updates

Drivers who invest in expensive GPS navigators are now demanding better and more up-to-date maps and information, and manufacturers are trying to respond. Unfortunately, the release of new GPS updates for specific brands and models is sometimes erratic. You may buy a new unit with pre-installed mapping software, only to see new software released soon after. This together with the cost of the mapping updates is a common source of irritation for GPS users.

To understand why this occurs, it’s helpful to know something about the process of GPS data collection. GPS makers like Garmin contract with mapping companies, such as Navteq, to provide their geographic information. The mapping companies continually survey and re-survey different areas, and update their databases accordingly.

Data gathering for new maps is a time-consuming and expensive process. And once the information is collected, it can take a while for GPS manufacturers to convert it into their own specific software formats and produce GPS updates (in the form of a download or DVD) for distribution.

However like everything else in the world of GPS, this extended process of data collection and product production is improving. Increasingly, mapping companies and GPS manufacturers are prioritizing areas for updating based on customer feedback.

GPS updates for Garmin, Magellan, TomTom and other popular brands are now coming more frequently, and contain more new information. Garmin GPS map updates, for example, are now issued quarterly. Each update contains improved map coverage of over 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada, and six million updated points of interest.

Other companies are experimenting with new strategies for keeping their GPS maps software and databases as current as possible. TomTom recently introduced MapShare technology in its GO 720 GPS receiver. Mapshare allows TomTom users to submit and share their own GPS updates immediately when route changes or mapping errors are noted. Other TomTom owners can then choose whether or not they want to download the customer-generated changes, or wait for official updates that are verified by the company.

In coming years it seems certain that number of GPS navigators on the road will continue to expand, and new approaches to geographic information sharing will be developed. As these processes unfold, the cost of GPS map updates will likely go down even as the quantity and quality of information continues to rise.

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