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Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have become widely available over the past couple of decades, and while many don’t think twice about the little screen mounted on their dashboards, GPS technology has enormous potential to change the driving landscape.

Indisputably, a fully autonomous vehicle would require an extremely accurate and reliable navigation system in order to get a person from point A to point B without touching the steering wheel.

The exciting news is that we’re moving closer to that future, given the current trends we’re seeing with auto manufacturers.

In a previous column about auto technology trends for 2017, I talked about how many big manufacturers are presently investing in autonomous systems.

Volvo plans to launch the world’s first large-scale autonomous drive project to put 100 self-driving Volvos on public roads later this year. As well, it was reported in the second week of February that Ford intends to invest $1 billion over the next five years into Argo AI – an artificial intelligence start-up company. Fiat also struck a deal with Google last May to create minivans for the tech giant’s autonomous fleet.

For the everyday driver though, portable GPS systems can be purchased for under $300. They include features like map updates, traffic condition updates and built-in dash cams. Some models even include an advanced lane guidance feature to tell you if you’re in the correct lane for making a turn onto an exit.

And to think – the first ever navigation system, GM’s GuideStar, which cost just under $2,000 in 1995, had very few catalogued points of interest, and was not in the least bit accurate.

But how exactly do GPS systems work?

According to the U.S. Government’s official site, there are 31 operational satellites in the GPS constellation as of January 20, 2017.  These satellites orbit at altitudes of over 20,000 kilometres above the Earth and make two full orbits around the planet each day.

At any given time, each satellite transmits positional information at regular intervals to the GPS receivers in cell phones, tablets or automotive GPS systems. Originally developed for the military, the system was opened for civilian use by president Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.

Now, thirty-five odd years later, car owners have much to gain from GPS technology.

Night driving safety is greatly improved with GPS and of course, you won’t need to deal with the hassle of printed maps.

Apart from providing traveling directions, cars equipped with modern GPS systems have a higher chance to be quickly tracked and found after being stolen.

For anxious parents with teenage drivers, GPS systems can also transmit real-time data to your smartphone, tablet or computer outlining exactly where the vehicle is being driven and how.

Fleet managers are another demographic example where knowing the exact whereabouts of a vehicle as well as travel conditions could be particularly useful. Having such detailed logistics could mean big savings in terms of fuel economy, route planning and overall strategy.

GPS is another one of those technological advances that we, in the 21st century, take for granted every day.

From starting out as a navigation system for the United States Department of Defence to ultimately determining the success of autonomous cars, GPS technology’s impact on the automotive industry has been colossal and is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Remember to avoid distracted driving and program your GPS before driving!

Check out these and other technologies at the 97th Annual Vancouver International Auto Show, March 28-April 2 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Blair Qualey is President and CEO of the New Car Dealers Association of BC. You can email him at [email protected].