After finishing a round of golf recently in a small east Texas town, Jacque Gibbs realized she'd locked her keys inside her Cadillac. No problem: Her car is equipped with Onstar, a satellite navigation system.
She reached an Onstar operator in another state as it started to rain, then hung up and retreated to the clubhouse. Moments later, the operator remotely unlocked the doors, then alerted Mrs. Gibbs by flashing the car's lights and honking its horn. She drove off, leaving astonished duffers in her wake.
Move over cellphones: There's a new toy in town.
Playing off frontier fantasies of navigating by the night sky, global positioning systems are helping a growing number of Americans pick their way through the maze of modern life.
Right now, the gadgets are seen primarily as luxury playthings. But in a society fascinated by technology - and one that increasingly believes in treating itself right in a Gatsby economy - GPS is poised to become the next "necessity" for the middle class.
The devices will undoubtedly get a turboboost from a recent presidential directive that sharpens the view from the 24-satellite system used to tracks things on earth. Originally built for the military, GPS spread to the civilian sector in the mid-1990s, allowing boaters, hikers, truckers, and even farmers to pinpoint their location anywhere in the world.
But the Pentagon intentionally "dimmed" the satellites' capability out of fear that an enemy might misuse the system. A technological breakthrough solved that problem. With what amounts to a flick of a switch, consumer GPS units last week suddenly went from 20-100 vision to 20-20.
Previously, civilian users could fix their position within an area the size of football field. Now it's more like a tennis court. The difference could be lifesaving, say, to a rescuer trying to find a lost skier in a blizzard.
"This will definitely accelerate the adoption of GPS by consumers," says Glen Gibbons, editor of GPS World magazine. "GPS is going to become increasingly ubiquitous, to the point people won't even be conscious it's there."
A GPS in every home
Indeed, industry insiders now believe GPS will eventually become a gadget-of-choice in the typical middle-class home. Or at least the driveway.
"I see two universal applications," says JoAnn Cummings, president of Adventure GPS products in Decatur, Ala. "You're going to have car navigation systems - either built-in or portable - and personal tracking systems."
Such systems have been installed in rental fleets for several years and are now infiltrating the retail luxury-car market. General Motors' GPS-based Onstar system had 25,000 customers in mid-1999. GM expects 1 million users by the end of 2000.
St. Louis Cadillac dealer Tom Gerhardt says the technology is so hot that instead of selecting a model and then choosing options, "customers come in knowing they want the Onstar system, and then the decision is, what model do I want it in?"
Joe Mehaffey, operator of a GPS Web site, even predicts the coming of automobiles equipped with a GPS heads-up display - like those in advanced aircraft - that would project a map on the inside of a motorist's windshield.
One GPS manufacturer is in talks with an automobile company to start putting GPS in economy cars by 2003. Such mass production is expected to lower the cost of the technology, build consumer acceptance, and fuel nonautomotive sales.
Already, the uses for GPS outside the car are developing rapidly. GPS microchips, for instance, are expected to be imbedded in other technologies such as cell phones and hand-held computers. That will mean, among other things, that the average soccer mom could have GPS capability in her purse along with a cell phone and Palm pilot.
The FCC is expected to soon require "location determination" capability in cellphones for 911 calls. By marrying GPS with a handheld computer, a traveling businessperson in a new city could eventually navigate to the nearest ATM, an unfamiliar restaurant, and the next appointment. It would be the equivalent of having a personal concierge in the palm of your hand.
Within a few years, GPS technology will allow a parent to track their teen like a biologist tracking a condor. Indeed, a parent could one day be sitting at work and "watch" Johnny hit a home run in his Little League game across town, as the blink that represents him rounds the bases on a detailed map in a GPS unit.
First generation tracking systems already exist. Most are clunky plastic bracelets that can only be removed with a key. Casio Computer Co., however, introduced the first wristwatch GPS system this year.
Little brother is watching
Such systems can make a child feel cared for - or feel like a felon on leave from a halfway house. And therein lies one of the problems with GPS, as with a lot of modern technology.
"Anything that enhances surveillance is a potentially dangerous technology," says Stephen Doheny-Farina, a professor of technical communications at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. "It raises privacy concerns. The question is: who wants to know your location?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society