What you see here, an exhibit at the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Tochigi, Japan, is the world’s first commercially available in-car navigation system. Launched in 1981, well before Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) services were available for civilian use, this gyroscope-based Electro Gyrocator, as the feature was known back then, was first introduced as an option in the second generation Japanese market Honda Accord and its upmarket twin, the Honda Vigor.
The US government-owned GPS system that all our modern Google Maps, Waze, Garmin and other navigation systems rely on, were only opened for civilian use in 1983 but GPS only became accurate enough for drivers (accuracy of about 3 metres) in year 2000.
When Honda attempted to solve the problem of drivers getting lost, they didn’t had much to work with. Remember that this was 1981, still the era of the cassette-playing Sony Walkman. Electronics were mostly used for analogue signal processing rather than digital. There were no multi-gigabyte flash memory cards, only 1.44 megabytes floppy disks.
Most younger drivers today don’t have the necessary skills to read a map, and even less understand the challenge of navigating oneself by following a folded map, while driving in an unfamiliar area.
Without the necessary network of satellites, digital hardware and high capacity data storage, how then would one go about creating an in-car navigation system?
Simple: the same way how all great engineering feats were achieved in the age of antiquities: by a lot of improvisation.
The Intelligent Automobile – As Envisioned In the ‘70s
In 1976, Katsutoshi Tagami, then an engineer at Honda R&D in-charge of Honda’s power generator products, was summoned by his Senior Managing Director Tadashi Kume.
Realising that automotive electronics was fast becoming a crucial part of vehicle development, Kume reasoned that it would be unwise to rely on suppliers for such a crucial part of a car.
“I want you to take charge of electrical equipment for automobiles," Kume told Tagami.
"Your role," Kume explained, "is to bring us up to the level of other manufacturers and eventually get a step ahead of them."
Kume had drafted a rough strategy for which the eventual goal was to create an autonomous Honda car that drivers could input a destination, and have the car drive itself there.
Of course, this was a long shot and such a dream would not be realized until 36 years later, in 2012, ironically not by a car company, but by Google, who even more ironically was using a modified second-generation Toyota Prius, which became the world’s first autonomous driving vehicle.
Kume’s "Automatically Adaptive and Creative Electronically Controlled System" strategy created the foundation for Honda to pursue various research into automotive electronics, which later culminated in the PGM-F1 electronic fuel injection system, cruise control, and later on other digitally controlled ‘by-wire’ systems for the steering, throttle and brakes.
A navigation system was one of the components of this theoretical autonomous Honda car so it was identified as an area that Honda should research on.
No satellites? Use a gyroscope
As mentioned earlier, GPS systems suitable for in-car navigation use would not appear until year 2000.
Kume had no idea of what the future would hold, but during a visit to a training site of Japan’s Self-Defense Force, he noted that a tank’s gun barrel was able to maintain sight of the target – the so-called ‘zero-target’ point – regardless how much the tank off yaws as it moves across rough terrain.
He was told this was possible by using a gyroscope device.
Upon hearing Kume’s idea, one of Tagami’s staff suggested that a gyroscope can be adapted for a navigation system, with the ‘zero-target’ now set to the target road.
The general idea was that if a driver knows where he started from, a system that is able to continuously sum his total distance covered and the direction of travel, which should in theory able to guide a driver to his destination.
To understand how the system works, we must first drop our 2015-era understanding of how in-car navigation systems work.
This is no Waze, and it couldn’t give you turn-by-turn instructions. Remember that the required digital electronics, digital map storage and satellites were not yet available.
Instead, the concept of navigation here is closer to a skill known to most senior drivers who could read map – you’d first have to determine your current location, plot a course on the map to your destination, and follow that course on the map. Honda’s early navigation system worked the same way – because that’s how drivers of that era navigate.
The driver pinpoints his destination on a special plastic map provided by Honda with a felt marker pen. It’s like drawing on an overhead projector’s transparency paper (remember those?).
The plastic map was then fed into a system’s cathode ray tube (CRT, remember those?) screen, which has blinking dot representing the vehicle’s current position.
The driver can then drive along the plotted route, referring to the blinking dot for his current position.
Without this solution, it was impossible for a driver to read a map and drive at the same time. Honda’s system basically solves just that.
Although initial tests showed promising results, Honda found that the system’s accuracy was highly dependent on the ambient temperature, which affected the helium gas inside the gyroscopes.
To improve the gyroscopes, Tagami approached Stanley Electric, the only company that agreed to support Honda’s project, which many thought to be a ridiculous idea to pursue. The image below is a gyroscope made by Stanley Electric for Honda.
The biggest problem faced by the team however, arose when they learnt that even if Honda succeeded in solving the gyroscope’s accuracy, the system will not be entirely accurate because of the way conventional maps are produced.
On a map of a 1:100,000 scale, a road of 10 meters wide is shown via a line only 0.1 mm thick. Clearly this is too small for anyone to read. Thus, it is impossible to do a map of an urban area by strictly following everything to scale. Some degree of freedom in altering the thin lines slightly is necessary to make the map legible. Tagami’s team learned that this practice of called ‘deformation’ is common in cartography.
It quickly became clear that to proceed further, Honda would have to assume the responsibility of producing the maps that the prototype navigation system could work with.
The fateful drive from Suzuka To Tokyo with the boss
By early 1981, five years after Tagami was transferred from the power products team to the automotive electronics team, it was time for Tagami to demonstrate his prototype navigation system to his boss.
Tagami was to pick his boss Kume from Suzuka, where he was attending a meeting with dealers in that area, and drive him back to his house in Tokyo.
Tagami had no idea where Kume’s house was. Kume merely circled the location of his house on the map, and inserted it into the map holder in front of the CRT display fitted to the car’s dashboard.
Guiding himself with the blinking dot on the screen, Tagami navigated himself to Kume’s house, entering and exiting various highways as per the map’s guidance. When the blinking dot got nearer to the circle, Tagami stopped the car and told his boss, "I believe your house is around here."
It was a decisive moment for Tagami. After a moment of silence, Kume said "Okay, you passed the test. My house is right over there."
On August 1981, Honda introduced the Electro Gyrocator as a dealer option for the Japanese market second generation Honda Accord, which went on sale the following month. The feature was also offered for the Accord’s upmarket twin, the Japan-only Vigor.
Considering that the task of creating the map fell squarely on Honda, the feature was prohibitively expensive, reportedly costing a quarter of the car’s selling price. Clearly it’s not going to be a commercial success. The feature was discontinued a year later and was not introduced to other markets.
While the Electro Gyrocator feature did not sold well, the experience thought Honda many crucial basic knowledge on map and information storage technology.
When the necessary digital electronics and storage technology were invented, Honda already had sufficient knowledge to offer the world’s first telematics system that could offer real-time traffic information - the HDD-based InterNavi Premium Club. The feature was available on the Japanese market Honda Odyssey in 2003, 10 years before anyone knew what Waze was.
As advanced as InterNavi Premium Club was, it relied on Japanese mobile communication standards and Japanese road information infrastructure, which either was not compatible or not available in other countries, so it could not be offered outside of Japan.
Earlier this year, Honda’s Electro Gyrocator was awarded the IEEE Milestone award by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Honda is the only automotive company to receive the award, sharing the honour with the Tokaido Shinkansen (Central Japan Railway Company’s Bullet train, 2000) and Apollo Lunar Module (2011, Northrop Grumman Corporation).
Today, Honda’s Saitama R&D Centre X focuses on projects beyond the automobile. It is thinking not just 20 or 30 years ahead, but well into the post-car era, where people no longer have need for a private car. It is actively involved in various robotics projects like the Asimo and Walking Assist (below), to help people lead a meaningful life. Honda’s longterm goal is to be a company that society wants to exist, to solve everyday problems humans face.