Iter Avto: An Early Attempt To Solve Car Navigation Problems

While history may not repeat itself, it does often rhyme.  In few areas of life is that truer than in the world of product design.  Where a problem exists, proposed solutions will rush to fill the void, and often they will look much like one another.

Long before the first automotive GPS systems were introduced in the 1990s, the problem of navigating a car on long trips was a challenge.  And one very early product introduced to solve it was the Iter Avto.

Early navigation systems used simple paper maps

Load any map and let automation do the rest! (Image modified from Darren Meacher - Own work, CC BY 3.0)

Little is known about this device or the Italian company that made it.  The Avto was introduced in 1930, and was a dashboard mounted navigator that relied on scrolling paper maps for a display.  Connected to the car’s mechanical speedometer, the Avto would maintain a scroll rate proportional to the vehicle speed.

Unfortunately, the Iter Avto had at least two major problems.  It did not, of course, accurately reflect any changes in roads or landmarks made after the maps themselves were created.  The maps also only ever really worked in a straight line: if the driver turned, the map would have to be replaced.

In any case, the Iter Avto wasn’t destined to become a product with mass commercial appeal.  With few drivers on the road in 1930, and the Great Depression getting off to a roaring start, few were in the market for an automotive navigational system.  And to the Avto, and the company that made it, were mostly lost to history until its story was uncovered a few years ago.

The similarity to modern car GPS devices, however, is striking.  A common problem, met with similar solutions: when history rhymes, it also has been known to carry a tune from time to time.