European motorists use in-vehicle navigation devices for longer periods than their U.S. counterparts, who typically travel farther, a recent study conducted by ABI Research finds.

Dominique Bonte, practice director of ABI Research, says more than 20% of U.S. navigation sessions last between 15-30 minutes, while in Europe only 5%-10% of sessions are that short.

The results are somewhat surprising, because the U.S. is much larger than Europe and Americans use their cars “for just about everything,” Bonte tells Ward’s, noting there are two possible explanations for the discrepancy.

Due to the vastness of the U.S., many trips don’t require much navigation, as motorists are “bound to drive longer highways, so there is no real need for navigation given the simplicity of longer trips,” Bonte says.

Secondly, in the U.S., “the car is used for even the shortest trips,” he says. While in Europe there are more cyclists and pedestrians. So when Europeans use their cars, it’s usually for lengthy trips, rather than just a quick jaunt to the mall.

“Shopping centers in the U.S. are so huge you need a car just to go from Point A to Point B, even in the same center,” Bonte says. “In Europe, there are small shopping centers and they have limited parking space.”

The study, which was based on online responses from 766 navigation users in the U.S. and 255 in the U.K., Germany, and France, also finds differences in the ways Americans and Europeans use the traffic-information features of navigation systems.

Usage is higher in Europe “probably because traffic problems are everywhere in Europe, and in the U.S. probably only in metro areas,” Bonte says. So Europeans might be more inclined to use navigation devices to avoid traffic congestion than for directions.

Americans and Europeans also have different tastes in the type of devices, the study shows. “In-dash navigation (is) more popular in Europe than in the U.S.,” Bonte says, noting there also are differences among the three European countries surveyed.

“In Germany, close to 50% of navigation users use an in-dash system,” he says. “If you look at the U.S., more than 80% use personal-navigation devices (PND) and less than 20% use in-dash, which may come as a surprise because in-dash systems are cheaper in the U.S. than in Europe.”

German drivers may have stronger preferences for in-dash navigation systems because “Germans love expensive cars,” and they expect such equipment, Bonte says.

In France, PND popularity is 70%, while in-dash use is 35%, the study finds. The U.K. more closely mirrors the U.S., with 75% of motorists preferring PNDs and 23% in-dash systems.

When it comes to handset navigation, available as a feature on many smart phones, there is “not really a significant difference (between the) U.S. and Europe,” Bonte says, noting about 30% of respondents use handsets for navigation.

“Many people are talking about handset navigation, but actually it’s still (an) immature area; many people probably don’t know you can use it,” he says. “If you have smart phone with a big touch-screen, the experience is close to a PND.”

With in-dash navigation systems, most users prefer touch-screens, rather than joystick-controlled systems such as BMW AG’s iDrive system, Bonte says, noting most users aren’t deterred by fingerprint smudges on touch-screens.

“In smart phones, you have touch-screens. If you see fingerprints it’s a minor inconvenience.”

While the majority of navigation systems fall into the in-dash or PND categories, that is changing as companies start to roll out systems similar to Ford Motor Co.’s multimedia Sync system, which provides drivers with turn-by-turn audio directions via the vehicle’s sound system. Ford will introduce Sync, already available in the U.S., in Europe next year.

Despite the introduction of these new types of systems, Bonte remains skeptical about their prospects for success in Europe. “I would expect probably only a 10% (penetration rate),” he says. “People probably don’ want voice instructions.”

Meanwhile, Bonte predicts in-dash systems will grow in popularity in the U.S., as they have in Europe. “Ask (U.S. consumers) about future preferences, you see a clear increase in the popularity of in-dash,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com