FORTUNE Small Business

Dash Navigation looks ahead - far ahead

Avoid commuting pitfalls and find cheap gas with this next-generation GPS service.

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Quick: If you had a magic box in your car that could tell you anything you wanted to know about your daily commute, what would you command? If you answered either "help me avoid traffic" or "find the cheapest gas," congratulations: Your magic box will be in stores starting July 2008 - as long as you're prepared to put down $500, plus $15 a month.

Dash Navigation is more than just a run-of-the-mill GPS unit. In-car GPS devices have been triangulating their location - via the Pentagon's GPS satellites - for years, and the GPS signal itself has been available to the public for decades. Yet the number of units sold per year has yet to crack a million. There are around 230 million cars on the road in the U.S., and less than 7% use GPS. Clearly, the market hasn't been getting what it wants. An electronic map with voice directions is great - until its directions land you in the middle of a rush-hour jam.

The Dash device aims to fix that. "When we talk to customers, that's the number one thing," says Eric Klein, senior director of product marketing at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Dash, an 85-person company. "'Get me through this traffic,' they say. 'Tell me how to get around it.'" Dash got $45 million in funding from VCs, including Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia, to do just that.

The company came up with a hyper-networked navigation device that doesn't just use GPS, it also employs GPRS (that is, cell phone data technology) and wifi. In other words, it's always connected, and the various devices chatter to each other constantly, giving them the wisdom of the crowd. When my box sees that I'm doing 15 M.P.H. on a road where cars normally clock 45 M.P.H., it tells the Dash Driver Network. On other Dash devices, the road I'm on starts glowing red, and the computer knows to avoid it when calculating directions.

Naturally, there will need to be a critical mass of Dash users in your area before that feature becomes useful. Wisely, the company has spent the last two years seeding the market. Since July, 2,000 testers have been out using the device, mostly in the Bay Area and L.A., but also in Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. In my test drive with a Dash representative at rush hour, plenty of San Francisco roads were peppered with yellow and red warning colors - a sure sign that other Dash drivers were in the vicinity.

Because it is also getting regular updates from the Internet, Dash can give you other kinds of up-to-date information. At the push of a button, you instantly get a list of gas stations nearby, sorted by price. As the markets head towards $100 a barrel and $4 a gallon, Dash couldn't have picked a better time to launch, and it's not hard to imagine the gas list will be the company's killer app.

But just in case you need other data - like the best place to get dim sum, or show times at the nearest cinema - the company has done a deal with its Silicon Valley neighbor, Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), for local search information. Dash also offers a plug-in for your PC, which lets you send an address direct from the Web, or from Outlook, to your car. No more need to print out the address, or write it by hand on a Post-It.

The Dash device is still only in version 1.0, and the company is still tinkering with many of its specs at the last minute, including the box's appearance. Its touch screen interface is great by GPS device standards, but the iPhone this ain't. The $500 cost and monthly subscription fee may also put some off - you'd have to buy a lot of cheap gas before it paid for itself. But the Dash is the first GPS device that promises to eliminate the stop-and-go stress and guesswork of the daily commute - and for many of us, that's hard to put a price tag on.  To top of page

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