Driving can be a cakewalk when you know where you’re going (say, grandma’s house). But what about when you don’t? Then the drama begins. Sweaty palms. That foreboding sense that time is ticking away and you aren’t getting any closer to your destination. Let’s face it: getting lost opens up a whole can of unpleasantness. Fortunately, there’s an alternative. GPS can tell you exactly how the heck to get there from here.

And it can also help make you a better driver.

It may sound a little crazy, but hear us out. GPS helps you avoid circling around and around or stopping to ask for directions. The result: better driving (as you reduce the number of illegal U-turns needed to get to your destination) AND increased fuel efficiency.

Put simply, GPS is a game changer. So here’s a little info about its history, how it works, and some tips on its use.

History of GPS

Knowing where you are is pretty important, whether that happens to be the empty expanses of the Atlantic or bumper-to-bumper traffic in Atlanta. But how do we ever really know where we are?

In the 18th century, sailors used sextants (not what you think) and marine chronometers to determine their positions in terms of latitude and longitude. And over the next 200 years only slight improvements came along.

Then Sputnik rocketed onto the scene and the idea of using radio signals and satellites to figure out your position took off. Unfortunately, it took a while for the technology to catch up with the concept: the first NAVSTAR satellite launched in 1978 (21 years after Sputnik) and the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS to us) wasn’t fully functional until 1994.

Since then, however, GPS technology has continued to advance. And with competing programs from Russia, Europe, and China, the pressure is on to implement new innovations that’ll make the system even more accurate and efficient.

How GPS works

GPS satellites transmit high-powered radio signals. These signals are picked up by a receiver, which can determine each satellite’s distance based on how long it takes the signal to reach the receiver. By triangulating the signals from 3 different satellites, the receiver is able to determine the location of each. Pretty tricky, no?

Advances in the technology and use of multiple frequencies help compensate for local and atmospheric interference, which in turn improves the precision of the system. Today, most receivers (sometimes referred to as roving receivers) are able to pinpoint their position within 10 to 15 meters.

Tips for using GPS

GPS navigators can be an indispensable aid when you’re trying to find your way around unfamiliar places. But as with most technologies, you need to interact with it in a way that’ll reduce your stress, not increase it. So here are some helpful tips.

  1. Remember you’re the driver. Don’t let the directions from your GPS navigator overrule good sense. If it attempts to steer you into a river or lake, assume the directions are faulty (and blame your roving receiver).
  2. Keep your eyes on the road. Keep in mind that distracted driving is extremely dangerous and avoid fooling around with your GPS or staring at its display while driving.
  3. Check your route beforehand. GPS is a great tool, but it helps to have a general idea of where you’re going and how to get there. By familiarizing yourself with the destination area you’ll be able to recognize any problems ahead of time (instead of after the fact).
  4. Test all the features. GPS units often come with all sorts of features. Figure out which work for you by giving them all a test-drive (so to speak). One word of advice: if your GPS offers spoken instructions, use them. This will allow you to focus on the road instead of your GPS map.
  5. Practice using your GPS. Trying to get the knack of your GPS while in unfamiliar territory is a recipe for stress and frustration. Give yourself some time to get the features down in a safe, comfortable setting first (then put it through its paces later).

With a little preparation and a trusty GPS unit at your side, getting around can be that much easier, and your driving (and gas mileage!) that much better.

Related links

Green GPS
Learn about how researchers at the University of Illinois are developing a green GPS system that plots the most fuel-efficient route for various types of vehicles.


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about Shawn

With more than 4 years' experience, Shawn spent his Esurance tenure helping make car insurance info as accessible, engaging, and informative as possible while simultaneously managing an abundance of complex editorial spreadsheets.