Sat Navs

Free buyers' guide to Sat Navs, from Ethical Consumer

Free buyers' guide to Sat Navs, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Satellite navigation has recently become available for mass consumption. But how ethical is the technology and where is it leading us?

This report includes:

  • ethical and environmental ratings for 15 SatNavs
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • threats to civil liberties
  • company profiles - the good and bad
  • price comparisons


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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Best Buys

as of January/February 2009

As our ratings are constantly updated, it is possible that these companies will not always come out top on the score table.

Becker, Road Angel  and Trafficmaster all score the best on the score table.

Sat Navs


The market for sat navs has grown enormously over the past five years, with 5% of households now owning a device. This explosion in the market is partly due to falling prices; you can now buy a brand new sat nav for under £100.

The value of the market is now a massive £395 million and it grew by a whopping 7800% between 2002 and 2007. 1

The market for sat navs has grown enormously over the past five years, with 5% of households now owning a device. This explosion in the market is partly due to falling prices; you can now buy a brand new sat nav for under £100. The value of the market is now a massive £395 million and it grew by a whopping 7800% between 2002 and 2007. 1


Uncle Sam is watching you?


All in—car satellite navigation systems currently use the American military Global Positioning System or GPS.

The Global Positioning System consists of a network of satellites that orbit the globe transmitting signals to receiver equipment on the ground. A sat nav system receives signals from several satellites at once to triangulate its precise location. This information is combined with mapping information in the sat nav to establish the position of the car and calculate your route. 2

Voice commands and a visual display guide drivers while en route to the pre—programmed destination.

Developed by the US government and run by the US air force, GPS is known as a dual use technology: used by the military but freely available for commercial use.

Since its launch in the early 1990s, civilian use of the system has exploded. It's now used for everything from tracking family pets to guiding ships.

In the first instance GPS was designed to have two fundamental uses. Firstly it was designed as an early warning system for incoming Russian nuclear weapons, which on the face of it is not such a bad idea. However this was part of Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' program (that contravened the anti—ballistic missile treaty) and the US military doctrine of 'full spectrum dominance' that started the race to militarize space.

Secondly it was designed to guide all US warheads (conventional and nuclear) and to track potential targets. This is not such a good use especially if you live in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia or Syria or have lived in Sudan, Somalia or the former Yugoslavia. The military now also use it for a host of other tasks including navigation, search and rescue and reconnaissance and map creation. 3

To help prevent GPS from being used by 'enemy combatants' the US Government controls the export of civilian receivers. Users are limited to those considered political and military allies by the US government. However, with the United States' recent track record on military intervention, many fear that no one is free from being switched off.

With this in mind the EU, China, Russia, Japan and India are now looking to get in on the act, each has plans to launch its own satellites. The EU's Galileo system is likely to cost upward of £7 billion.4

Critics wonder whether the project is necessary considering the EU currently has use of the US system.


Peeping TomTom — civil liberties under threat


Aside from military use, people are now using this technology to do all manner of things. Satellite navigation is used in civilian aircraft, ships and cars.

From British Airways to Lucky 7 Taxis it has become an integral part of the transportation industry, allowing companies to find cost effective routes and keep an eye on employees.

The latter has led to concerns from civil liberties groups and trade unions as it has Big Brother connotations. Michael Parker of the NO2ID campaign said,
"If a system of tracking becomes systematic and compulsory with routine tracking of individuals then it becomes an issue. The technology is not bad in itself but its applications are potentially worrying."

Compulsory monitoring of people's movements may seem a long way away but the idea has already been mooted in regard to congestion charging in the UK. In fact the Department of Transport has already entered into a contract with Trafficmaster to monitor the users of its sat nav systems.5

The government of the United Arabic Emirates has already gone a step further; in 2005 they spent $125 million to equip the nation's cars with a GPS tracking device (IBM supplied the technology).6

In the UK 18% of cars now have sat nav fitted as standard and it is likely that all new cars will be fitted with it eventually.7

In Britain we already use the technology to track some of those accused of terrorism, even if they are found innocent, with some subject to tagging and house arrest (for example, Mouloud Sihali). In some parts of the US they even use the tagging technology on school children who have persistently played truant.


Environmental Impact


Recently TomTom joined forces with US companies Delta Lloyd insurance, AON insurance and Athlon car leasing to commission research into sat nav and how it affects drivers.

According to the research, when using a navigation system on average people spend 35% less time sitting in traffic. The research also found that on journeys to unfamiliar destinations your mileage is, on average, reduced by 16% and your driving time by 18%. This could equate to a huge reduction in carbon emissions and form a compelling argument to fit all cars with the device.

This would however have to be weighed against the environmental cost of producing the units and the fact that most journeys are routine trips over short distances. ECRA would suggest that some independent research is needed on the subject to check the figures by TomTom.

GPS technology apparently has other uses that are beneficial to the environment, including its use in helping mitigate pollution crisis such as oil spills. By giving an accurate picture of how spills are spreading those charged with the clean up can move quickly and efficiently to stop block the spills path. GPS has also been used to aid seasonal climate prediction models.


Safety First


'Sat Navs' can now help drivers to do much more than navigate, they now also give warning of diversions, congestion, accident black spots and speed cameras. The final point is one of contention.

In 2006 there was a ban imposed on 'non fixed radar detection' which means it now illegal to warn motorists where police with speed guns are hiding. However it is still legal to show motorists the where the fixed position speed cameras are, and many worry about the ethics of this.

A spokesperson from the charity Break, that works towards improving road safety said, "covert enforcement should be stepped up to deter people from speeding. The problem is that some people slow down for the speed cameras and then speed back up again when they have passed them, this is made worse by satellite navigation systems."

She also noted that a bigger problem with sat navs has been identified. Recent research suggests that in some cases accidents have been caused by people being distracted by the sat nav visual displays and even by people following the sat nav rather than watching the road.


Other uses of the technology


There are many less sinister uses of the technology.

It's now used to synchronise clocks and monitor earthquake activity. It's also a great help to ramblers, who no longer need a new map for every twenty square miles of the British Isles or pvc map covers. There are now even gizmos to watch your children when they are out playing.

In the US you can also buy the Drivecam which uses the technology to allow parents to monitor their teenagers when driving the family car! In the UK the insurance company Norwich Union has been trialling a pay—as—you—go insurance scheme, that they hope will allow them to offer fairer prices for people who do not drive regularly.


They don't call it 'dual use' for nothing


There's a duality at the heart of satellite navigation that needs to be considered carefully when discussing the issue.

For instance, in the context of defence, on one hand the technology has allowed us to monitor incoming nuclear weapons while on the other it has given governments the ability to target these and other weapons more accurately.

On the roads it can cut down carbon emissions by helping us avoid congestion, while the production of the systems will increase emissions. It can also improve road safety by identifying accident black—spots but at the same time it warns speeding motorists about the position of traffic cameras.

In more general terms it gives us a more comprehensive view of the world but at the same time it potentially allows governments and other interested parties to catalogue our every move.


Saving resources?


Clearly the more driving you do to unknown destinations the more sense it is to have one of these. But the lowest impact option is to buy a map — a good one usually costs about £10.

However things have moved on since early cartography and map makers now actually use GPS to make their maps — seemingly there is no escape.

The AA and RAC route finders are available free over the internet. These again use GPS technology but you don't have to purchase anything. Just type in where you are and where you want to go and the computer will plan your route for you.






Company Profiles


is the sat nav market leader enjoying a 45% market share. It has links with Nissan and Toyota which it supplies with standard in—car systems. In 2006 they were the highest spenders on advertising in the sector spending £5 million.

The company received ECRA's bottom rating for an inadequate supply chain policy. It has in place an 'Ethical Trading Code of Practice' which says that suppliers must comply with Fundamental ILO Conventions (Declaration on Fundamental Principles at Work) with regard to child labour and young workers, forced labour, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and non—discrimination.

However, children as young as 14 can be employed where it is in accordance with the ILO developing—country exception. There is also no set limit for overtime and no mention of a living wage and no independent verification.


is the next largest supplier to the market with a 20% share. The company also supplies the aviation sector, BMW, Mercedes, Smart car and the US military with navigational technology.


is now owned by insurance company Aviva. Aviva is using sat nav technology to offer customers pay—as—you—go insurance.

As well as owning RAC, Aviva has shareholdings in Premier Oil, a company criticised by ECRA under the categories: climate change, human rights and workers' rights.

Aviva is part owned by AXA which has shares in BAE systems, the British arms manufacturer. Also, according to Banktrack, AXA was one of two major European financial companies to have investments in 2006 in Teledyne Technologies and the Shaw Group who were involved in the modernisation of white phosphorus weapons for the US Army for use in Iraq.

White phosphorus weapons were said to have been used on civilians in Fallujah. The weapons were designed, amongst other things, to burn flesh.8


is owned by the Bosch group. This company manufactures automotive equipment, power tools and accessories, thermo—technology, household appliances, communication, automation and packaging machines for the defence industry.


has a 10 year, $1.7 billion contract to provide tyres to the US military.

It is also a member of the The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (a corporate lobby group that has been criticised for lobbying for voluntary approaches to business regulation and liberalisation of trade rules).


is a huge company that operates all over the globe including seven tax havens and seven oppressive regimes. According to the Political Economy Research Institute, the company was one of the 100 worst polluters of US air in 2005.

It is also a member of the International Chamber of Commerce, a lobby group that has "direct access to national governments all over the world through its national committees".

ECRA believes that the activity of the ICC often means that business interests are protected at the expense of the environment and human rights.


is another massive electronic company. It has been criticised for its membership of the ICC, the WBCSD, for its links with the unsustainable mining of coltan, its use of the dangerous chemical bromine, its supply of equipment to the military, and its operations in tax havens and oppressive regimes.


has a £5 million contract with the Department for Transport which allows the government to monitor the activities of the 50,000 Trafficmasters users in the UK.




1 Mintel market reports Sat Nav 2007
2 whatcar—special—report.aspx?NA=219571&EL=3156107 18/11/08
3 18/11/08
4 Guardian 18/11/08
5 Daily Mail—483682/Big—Brother—keeping—tabs—satnav—motorists.html 18/11/08—brother—put.html 18/11/08
7Mintel market reports Sat Nav 2007
8ING and AXA invest in the modernisation of white phosphorus weapons, The preparation of a new Fallujah? Brussels, Belgium, Mar 13 2006 | Netwerk Vlaanderen on viewed 23/11/08.

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