GPS, The RT, and You

Compiled/Edited by Mitchell P. Patrie

With the RT's capability for extended touring, maps are a necessary evil. Even on a long day trip, a map can be useful for finding the quickest way home. Maps do have their shortcomings, however. For starters, you can only highlight so many trip routes on a map before it becomes readable. Also, if you don't already know where you are, it may be hard to find your current location from looking at a map. Maps can be placed in a tank bag with a transparent window for easy viewing access, but you still have to turn the page now and then. And what if you don't have or want a tank bag?

Welcome to the confluence of the atomic age, the digital age and the space age. The Global Positioning System - a network of 24 satellites orbiting the earth, courtesy of the United States - uses super-accurate atomic clock signals to enable anyone virtually anywhere in the world to precisely determine their location. GPS has been around now for many years, and the technology has matured to the point where compact receivers with some truly useful features have become affordable. At a minimum, a GPS receiver eliminates most of the drawbacks of paper maps; at best, it does things no paper map can. In May 2000 the U.S. Air Force Space Command turned off selective availability, vastly improving the accuracy of the GPS signals available to civilians; a GPS receiver can now pinpoint its location to within 15 meters/49 feet.

What is GPS good for?

  • Speedometer. In spite of the 20-meter accuracy on finding position, GPS receivers are able to gage speed with remarkable accuracy, usually to within a fraction of a mph/kph. Given the RT's reputation for speedometer inaccuracy, this is truly useful information. Bob Johnson and Dick Reichenbach prefer GPS for speed measurements to the stock speedometer; Dick claims his GPS receiver, a Garmin GPS III+, also has better backlighting than the stock speedometer. Tomb9 also likes the max speed indicator on his receiver, a Garmin GPS III+ - although the occasional electronic glitch can produce interesting results.
  • Route Planning. Using software and a home PC, GPS users can plan trip routes in advance and then download them into the GPS receiver. The GPS receiver keeps track of progress during the trip, and provides constant updates to the expected arrival time.
  • Surveying the Route Ahead. Even without a preplanned route, a GPS receiver can clue you in to what's coming up. G. McCurdy uses his GPS to look for upcoming straight-aways on which he can pass slower-moving vehicles. Bill Cromie uses his GPS to identify upcoming road detours, such as closed mountain passes and blocked one way streets.
  • Exploring/Backtracking. The ability to always know your current location enables many riders to fearlessly explore new territory. Many GPS receivers can record a route as it's being traveled, allowing a rider to easily backtrack to the starting point, or generally guide exploration so as to stay within a general area. Tomb9 says "...when out riding, I don't care where I go. The GPS gets me home every time, and I never get lost. I've seen some really cool roads I'd never see otherwise."
  • Locating Services. Many GPS receivers designed for automotive travel come with an extensive database (either built-in or downloadable) of gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and various local points of interest. As Kris Besly notes, "The BEST feature, when using the Garmin's MetroGuide maps, is finding gas stations! Yes, it's out of date information, but you can figure if the GPS says there are 3 stations within a mile, there's probably 5 stations there now."
  • Locating Addresses. Kris was also able to find a BMW dealership in an unfamiliar city simply by keying in the dealership's address. This is one of the most useful features of GPS receivers: no need to get directions from someone, or interpret the inevitable unfamiliar landmarks and approximated distances, or even to try to find the address on folded paper map (like searching for a needle in a haystack in some cases). Simply type in the address, and go whichever way the GPS unit tells you to go. While some units will always point directly toward your destination (allowing you to dead-reckon your way there), some newer models will plot a route from your current location and provide turn-by-turn riding directions.
  • Locating Yourself. Am I four miles north of town, or six miles northeast? What was the last town I went through, anyway? Most people recognize the safety factor a cell phone provides, but if you are touring in unfamiliar territory and don't know exactly where you are, emergency services can still waste critical time trying to find you. In the event of an accident (possibly but not necessarily involving you), with a GPS receiver and a cell phone you can verbally relay your exact location to emergency services.

Models

Although there are several brands of GPS receivers available, Garmin seems to be by far the most popular brand with BBS readers. Detailed descriptions of individual models are available on Garmin's website, but here's a very brief description of the key features of each:

  • Garmin GPS III+: the compact size of this unit seems to be its most popular feature. Ted Lucas agrees the GPSIII+ is a good choice for bikers due to its size, although its display is a bit small.
  • Garmin StreetPilot: This model has a larger-than-average display, and can be fitted with extra memory to hold more maps.
  • Garmin Emap: users of the Emap cited its functionality and price.
  • Garmin StreetPilot III : This unit is equipped with a color display that's somewhat larger than that of the Streetpilot.
  • Garmin GPS 12: This model expands on the capabilities of the GPS III+ and the batteries also last longer in this unit than most (36 hours).

All of the models listed above are waterproof.

Other manufacturers of GPS receivers include:

Magellan

DeLorme

Lowrance

Rand McNally (GPS receiver attachments for your Palm III)

Mounting

The simplest scheme (short of stowing it in the glovebox) is to place it in the transparent map pocket on your tank bag. However, if you prefer a stand-alone installation, there are a lot of options. In addition to receiver-specific mounts, a number of third party aftermarket mounts are available. For a detailed photo review of some of the mounting schemes that have been developed - including some completely custom mounts - visit the electronics section in the BMWRT.com Custom Bikes Gallery. A list of links to vendors who offer GPS mount components is included here:

RCU Shelf

Motodecor Accessory Mount Platform

Touratech R-A-M Mount

Saeng/TA

Garmin mounts

 

Software

Several commercially available software packages can be used to plot trip routes, which can then be downloaded into a GPS receiver. Garmin's Mapsource series is by far the most popular, with packages providing coverage of areas around the world. The Metroguide sets provide detailed information about individual cities and surrounding areas, while the Roads & Recreation sets focus more on the needs of a cross country traveler; they show businesses near interstate exits, and provide listings of campgrounds, marinas, rivers, lakes, etc. Brian Peterson claims Delorme's Street Atlas software is better, in part because of the ability to specify preferences for route types (scenic, interstate, toll, etc.).

If you own or plan to purchase one of the Palm III GPS receivers described earlier, DeLorme offers Solus, a mapping package intended specifically for Palm handhelds.

Kris Besly has found Microsoft Streets & Trips to be helpful for the initial planning stages: "I use MSS&T for planning my trips; it takes less time, has greater detail, and is a faster program to use when searching for new roads, services, places to stay, etc. Then I use Garmin's MetroGuide and Roads & Rec CDs to create and load my maps, waypoints, and routes to the unit. Because Streets & Trips doesn't interact with Garmin's software - seems it only interacts with a live GPS of their liking - I do end up manually configuring my trip in Garmin's software. But I find Street & Trips has better info and is easier to 'plan' the trip; then, when I go to program the GPS it actually takes me less time to complete the process."

Shortcomings

Kris Besly: "When planning a trip using Garmin's software, if you're not placing the waypoints in exactly the right spot the routes will show as straight lines. I always spend 30-60 minutes correcting waypoints so that I can have my routes follow the roadways."

Marc99RT: "I really wish the Streetpilot would navigate using existing roads instead of just pointing directly (across lakes, etc.) to where you want to go." G. McCurdy agrees, saying he wishes his Emap included an autoroute function.

Some users have complained about the slow screen refresh rates on the Emap and the Streetpilot. In fact, all of the models mentioned here feature a 1-second screen refresh time, so these folks will have to wait for the next generation of receivers to get something faster. Hopefully the next generation will also include larger displays; this is another common complaint.

Richard Frantz: "GPS is in its infancy - particularly for motorcycle use. I look forward to the upgrades -especially for several *gigs* of storage, better identification of road surfaces, and larger (4x4inch?) screens."

For More Information

Information on GPS products is all over the web, but chances are you will find what you are looking for at Joe Mehaffey and Jack Yeazel's GPS Information Website. Thanks to Marc99RT for the reference.