How to Choose a Navigation System for Your Car

Built-in systems or apps? Google Maps or Waze? Plus, do navigation systems lower your car insurance?

With so many advancements in navigation, it’s hard to remember just how recent the relative dark ages of driving directions really were: as few as 10 years ago, in-vehicle navigation systems were rare (and usually confined to ultra luxury model cars) and portable plug-in systems  (like Garmin, TomTom and Navteq) were still pretty expensive. Most of us only traded in our street atlas and maps (and printed-out or scribbled MapQuest directions) for apps and built-in navigation systems within the last few years. But in those years, the options have multiplied, and new tech on the horizon promises to make safe, effective navigation both affordable and easy to use.

car navigation system

There are essentially three vehicle navigation categories: built-in systems, systems combining smartphones and in-vehicle displays, and smartphone apps. The details:

In-Car Navigation Systems

Built-in navigation systems have come a long way in a short time and are available from luxury vehicles all the way down to economy choices. They have a few undeniable perks (from Edmunds):

  • If your car is under bumper-to-bumper warranty, so is your navigation system.
  • You won’t have to worry about theft (well, unless your entire car is stolen).
  • If you sell your vehicle within three to five years after production, a built-in navigation system will increase your resale value (after five or so years, though, the design and technology becomes outdated).
  • Since they’re built in, they look cleaner and sleeker.

Built-in navigation systems have their faults, too. First of all, unless your model is capable of cloud updates, a built-in navigation system (and the maps within) will only be as current as your vehicle. Price is another sticking point as built-in systems commonly cost between $500 and $4,000 and “there doesn’t seem to be any logic to [the pricing],” Edmunds notes.

But the main argument against factory-installed navigation systems is that automakers are not consumer electronics companies and therefore they cannot make systems as well as tech giants (like Apple and Google).

New Navigation Tech from Your Phone: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

Apple CarPlay hit the in-vehicle navigation scene first (in 2011), but Android Auto is making a big play now. Both systems allow for safer smartphone use while driving. They both send information from the phone to a built-in vehicle display that essentially functions as an external touchscreen monitor, writes Ars Technica, but the interfaces function quite distinctly:

  • The Apple Car Play system allows users with vehicle compatibility to control their phones with their voices, the in-vehicle touchscreen, or the vehicle’s knobs. The in-car display looks a lot like the display on an iPhone; basically, it’s all about apps. For navigation, the system, unsurprisingly, uses Apple Maps.
  • With Android Auto (available in limited makes and models now, with more to come soon), Google Maps, a favorite of many, will finally be available in cars. Unlike Apple CarPlay, Android Auto’s interface doesn’t look much like that of Android phones. Instead, it uses a tabbed interface for each section, explains Ars Technica. If you have an Android smartphone running 5.0 Lollipop or higher, you’ll be able to override your vehicle’s on-board navigation system and use Android Auto instead. And, for vehicles that aren’t compatible with Android Auto, Google is working on an update that would allow you to use the app anyway by using your phone’s interface, and all voice controls would work, writes U.S. News.
car navigation systems
The home screens of Android Auto and CarPlay. One is a notification dashboard, the other is an a app icon grid. (Image: Ars Technica)

Free GPS Apps

For drivers without in-vehicle navigation systems, apps are a great way to help you get where you’re going – and the best ones are free:

  • Google Maps: If you don’t have an Android phone, you can still use the Google Maps app while driving by turning on your phone’s voice commands. It’s less interactive, and in states that disallow the use of phones while driving, the driver can’t make changes while on the road.
  • Waze: The world’s largest community-based navigation app navigates effectively and includes real-time traffic and road (and even police) info to keep drivers aware of any potential traffic delays. Waze also helps users find the least expensive gas in their area.

The downside of navigation apps on your phone: limited visuals (unless you have a dash attachment, but even then, the screens are generally small), and if phone service is bad, you’re out of navigation luck.

google maps vs waze

How to Stay Safe While Navigating

Just like any other in-car technology, navigation systems can be a source of distraction, which can lead to dangerous situations.

The most important safety tip: figure out your destination (and enter the address) before you begin driving. Many factory-installed navigation systems don’t allow input or updates while the car is moving, and while it can be frustrating (especially if you have a willing and able passenger in the front seat), avoiding using them while driving is a pretty good guideline to follow for everyone, even those of us using our phones.

And, remember to always follow traffic signs, even if your GPS says otherwise.

Navigation systems can also be dangerous distractions to drivers – set your route before you go.

Does Your Navigation System Impact Your Insurance?

As we learned in our State of Auto Insurance report, insurance companies don’t give much (or, often, any) weight to in-car technology, even things that could improve safety, like telematics devices. When it comes to navigation systems, it’s the same story.

The Zebra’s own licensed insurance agent and resident expert Neil Richardson explains: “Navigation systems have zero effect on the cost of your insurance rate, meaning insurance companies don’t believe navigation systems will have any (positive) impact on your ability to remain crash-free.”

But, adds Neil, “If a driver safely uses a navigation system and maintains a safe driving record, that will definitely help keep insurance rates down.”