LayersThere’s a good chance you’ve driven with someone who’s bought a fancy GPS navigation system for their car that gives them voice directions for each turn as they drive. You may have purchased one of those systems yourself, or maybe you went for the $100 iPhone version from TomTom. Now Google says it’s releasing a version of Google Maps that does the same thing, and you won’t have to pay anything for it.

Google Maps Navigation is currently in beta testing, and will be available for free on phones using Google’s Android 2.0 operating system. Google’s Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra demonstrated the feature at a press event yesterday. You just say your destination out loud, either a specific address or the name of the location — instead of typing in the start and stop spots, you just say, “Navigate to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.” Then Maps Navigation tells you each turn you need to take as you drive.

Google is including a number of cool features (many of these are part of the features you’d see planning a route using Google Maps through a regular web browser). When Maps shows you the route, you can see how traffic looks on different parts of your drive. You can also see your route in Street View, so you’ll know exactly what each turn looks like. And you can search for other types of locations, such as restaurants or gas stations, along a route you’ve already planned.

StreetView-Turn-P1If you lose your cell phone connection, that isn’t necessarily a problem either. The directions and maps are stored on your phone, so as long as you stay on the planned route, the app will continue directing you.

Asked why Google is getting into this market, Gundotra and chief executive Eric Schmidt were both a bit vague, although they repeated the usual Google statement that they’re not looking to unseat any competitors, but rather to solve problems, often by taking advantage of their existing technology. Over the next year, Schmidt said, you can expect Google to release more applications and features that allow your phone to do “magical things” when it connects to the Internet cloud.

“This is the most visually obvious example of that, but don’t limit your imagination to this set of problems,” he said.

Reporters were also curious about why Google is announcing this now, since there are no Android 2.0 phones currently on the market. Gundotra said he couldn’t speak for Google’s partners. But a likely guess is that there will be an Android 2.0 phone available very soon, maybe even today.

If you want to use this on your iPhone, Google says it’s working with Apple to make it happen. And if that process seems to drag out, well, maybe that’s another reason to consider the Droid.

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