PH Origins: Navigation systems

In the early 1970s, Honda found itself in a troubling situation. It had established itself as a masterful designer and manufacturer of motorcycles, engines and small cars but, in the process of doing so, it had overlooked the increasingly rapid development of electronic equipment.

Honda also had another problem at the time, in that it relied primarily on external companies for the development and manufacture of its electronics. Consequently, for example, the design of a fuel injection system for one of its engines would require sharing its hard-earned secrets with a third party.

The company was wary of this but, with significant leaps being made, it was in danger of falling behind. Honda's senior managing director at the time, Tadashi Kume, decided to go on the attack; he handed down a directive stating that the company itself would work to match, and eventually overtake, its rivals on the electronics front.

Katsutoshi Tagami, the lead developer of Honda's portable generator projects, was appointed to head up the company's electronic research division in 1976. A fresh strategy was quickly drawn up, identifying how developments would guide automotive design. Among other things, it showcased how new electrical systems would grant increased degrees of automation - ultimately culminating in an autonomous car.

Route guidance was key to this final stage but few had experimented with it and the technology wasn't available to permit anything practical. After all, the American 'Global Positioning System' project only began in earnest in 1978 and limited public access to the network wasn't granted until 1983.

Kume, however, happened to observe one of Japan's new Type 74 tanks in action during a military display. It, like many others, benefited from a gyroscopically stabilised main gun - which didn't bounce up and down while the tank traversed rough terrain. Kume thought this technology had some automotive application, so passed his observations along to the development team and Tagami.

Subsequent studies revealed that these mechanical gyroscope-based stabilisation systems were too complicated and costly for automotive use. Tagami nevertheless persisted with his investigations, deeming the technology something that could showcase the company's new electronics strategy. Further research revealed the 'gas rate' gyroscope, which had far fewer parts and worked based on the interaction of electrical currents with flowing gases.

An engineer then proposed that the gyro's direction-sensing capability, in conjunction with speed sensors, could be used to guide a car. Trials proved the theory sound and, after much more experimentation, a production system was developed.

Honda did have some help, though; the Stanley Electric Company supplied the vacuum technology required to develop and produce the gyros, and Alpine Electronics - already collaborating with Honda - produced the computer, display and distance sensor.

Finally, on August 24th, 1981, the world's first map-based electronic navigation system - dubbed the Honda 'Electro Gyrocator' - was unveiled to the public. Unlike modern navigation systems, which rely on GPS signals for real-time positioning data, the Electro Gyrocator was an inertial guidance system - which calculates position based on a known starting point, orientation and velocity measurements.

The unit was supplied with map transparencies onto which you would mark your starting point, potential route and desired destination. The Electro Gyrocator, once loaded with the map sheet and set up, would display your position and plot your travelled route on its six-inch display. This would allow you to see where you were, where you had been and where you should head next.

Honda's innovation caught many by surprise; even the US military was impressed, stating: 'The designers did an excellent job of designing and building a commercial-grade land navigator'.

That said, it was not without issues. Its accuracy was low, longer trips required map changes and it was expensive. Each cost ¥299,000 (£702) in 1981, almost 30 percent of the cost of a new entry-level Accord from the same era. Adjusted for inflation, an Electro Gyrocator would set you back almost £2800 today.

It wasn't a sales success, unsurprisingly, but Honda persisted with it and released a version that used digital mapping in 1990. Time was already being called for the gyro-based systems, though; Mazda's GPS-equipped Cosmo arrived in the same year, marking the next evolutionary step in the technology.

Honda had successfully established itself as an innovator in the field, however - and the Electro Gyrocator's map usage, top-down view and interface paved the way for everything that followed it.


Lewis Kingston

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (33) Join the discussion on the forum

  • George Smiley 02 Jan 2018

    Great article and really interesting to learn about this!

  • Krikkit 02 Jan 2018

    Very clever - inertial guidance units had been used for a long time on rockets etc, but weren't compact enough to fit into the car.

  • MarvinTPA 02 Jan 2018

    Reminded me immediately of this.

  • Mr-B 02 Jan 2018

    I remember buying a TomTom in the early 2000's for a couple of hundred quid and now I use google maps on my phone which "cost" nothing (if you discount the fact that I bought the phone for other things and not as a satnav) The pace of technological change over the last few decades has been incredible.

  • Quhet 02 Jan 2018

    Really interesting article, thanks. Had no idea about this!

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