Most frequent travelers have invested in portable GPS devices, smartphones, and tablets. All of these offer great voice-prompted navigation which is especially useful when you’re traveling in a foreign country, particularly if you’re not fluent in the local language. But as these portable technologies have developed, so have the integrated systems that most automobile manufacturers are now building in to their new models. And since I buy new electronics far more often than I buy new cars, I wasn’t familiar with the degree to which the automobile information systems have evolved.
On a recent trip to France, I arranged for a car rental through Sixt’s website. My main criteria in choosing the car were first, that it was big enough to accommodate my family, and second, that it was powered by a TDI engine because I knew that my fuel costs would be lower. Since I have my own TomTom, a couple of iPads, and an unlocked iPhone, I wasn’t concerned about GPS and turned down the online offer to include it with the rental. Luckily, Sixt provided me with a 2013 VW Passat wagon that included an onboard, fully integrated system with real-time traffic monitoring, voice activation, and bluetooth.
The navigation features were worth their weight in gold. My plan to use my iPhone was thwarted at the airport because I couldn’t find a vendor for a prepaid micro sim card. And my back up plan, which was my TomTom, failed when I couldn’t find the power cable for it. And because I didn’t have a local map, and my route included travel through Paris and some rural section of the Loire Valley, I wasn’t about to set off without advanced navigation support.
Familiarizing myself with a French language multifunction device after a 16 hour flight took a few extra minutes, but by the time I returned the car, I was in love with the Passat’s system for several reasons:
- The bluetooth integration allowed me to play music, audiobooks, and podcasts on the car’s great sound system with ease. With it’s smart interface, all audio was disabled any time I put the car in reverse which minimized distractions and probably saved me a few dents.
- The system included proximity detectors that were displayed on the main screen any time the car was in reverse, and any time we were near other cars or objects, like during parking. It took all of the guesswork out of parallel parking, and made the new vehicle learning curve much steeper than it would have been.
- The traffic monitoring feature allowed the routing software to adjust my routes on the fly, so that I had no traffic delays after driving over 6,000 km in two months.
- Because the system was integrated, the displayed information wasn’t confined to the large touch-screen, it included a very useful display on the main panel with options for displaying the current speed limit.
- Since many French roadways have dual speed limits for wet and dry conditions, the navigation systems rain sensor would adjust the posted speed limit as the weather changed.
- The system’s navigation database included some essential safety components, like quick navigation to the nearest hospital or pharmacy, as well as lots of points of interest, many of which I didn’t know about. This would have been available on TomTom, but it was a nice feature.
- The system worked on voice commands and could be activated with a button on the steering wheel.
- My average speed for each trip was displayed, which was not vital but still interesting.
The Passat was my only recent experience with a fully integrated automobile GPS and information system, but it inspired me to look at other systems that are available, particularly in Europe. And since I’m a fan of Renault, I read up on their latest system. I was sold immediately because their system includes warnings for traffic cameras. If you’ve gotten one of these annoying tickets after foreign travel, you’ll appreciate this feature.
But in addition to traffic cameras, the RLink offered by Renault includes lots of other features, including full internet access, as well as tablet functionality and the ability to download apps on the fly. Renault is even strongly hinting that self-driving cars are just around the corner (they seem to be ahead of even Google on this front). I’ve embedded their promotional video to whet your appetite:
On-board information system technologies is advancing at an impressive rate. Even if you don’t own a vehicle with these features, you should definitely consider renting one.