Navigation systems: only as good as who made them, and whoever is using them

“At the next available intersection, make a legal U-turn.”

If you haven’t heard this a thousand times you either don’t have a GPS with vocal commands, or you are inordinately good at following directions. The lady telling me to make that legal U-turn never gets stroppy and she never loses hold of those dulcet tones. In her lightly accented English, she makes me want to follow her to the ends of the earth. The problem, of course, is sometimes that is exactly where she is leading me.

Like most relationships, the one you have with your navigation system becomes stronger (or at least more predicable) over time. You finally learn how long the delay is between punching in numbers and letters and the computer storing it; you learn how long it takes the system to adjust to the last turn; you learn muttering “you must be joking” doesn’t faze her in the least.

You can opt for no voiceover at all, but if you are truly in unknown territory, especially with road signs in a language not native to you, it can get a little sticky. If you are someone who enjoys music as you drive, the robot voice telling you to prepare to turn right in 400 metres can clash with Chrissie Hynde’s . I’m still waiting for the softwear that will feature my NAV prompts to be delivered within the song lyrics.

There is humour to be mined in some systems, though. Because they are programmed to pronounce phonetically, it can be fun to listen to Ms. Calm and Collected stumble sometimes. My favourite? A friend, upon heading into Calabogie Motorsport Park in eastern Ontario, was told to turn onto Calamity Road.

The horror stories of misused GPS systems abound. Some are head scratchers: how do you drive your car directly into a lake or ocean, as has been reported numerous times? Sometimes the faith people have in modern technology is gobsmacking, like the Belgian woman who drove 900 miles instead of 90 and ended up in Croatia. And sometimes the results are just tragic, like the couple from British Columbia who trusted the “shortest route” setting to Nevada, not realizing this would factor in off season, little used forest roads. The woman was stranded for 7 weeks while her husband died trying for help.

Technology is still only as good as the humans who design it, make it and use it. I spent a weekend on Manitoulin Island last year in a lovely Land Rover, which was great in every way except for the fact that the GPS believed the entire island was underwater. My son tried a few approaches before finally announcing that we were on Atlantis.

It is for this reason that I still cling to fold-out paper maps. The U.S. is particularly good at giving towns and cities and districts the same names, and if you’re driving past one you might be at the other before you know it. There are 29 Germantowns in the U.S. There are over 55 places called Springfield. A map will let you see if there is overlap, but a tiny screen won’t.

Next time I have a vehicle with a GPS, I’m still determined to solve one mystery I found earlier this summer. Entering an address on the Hamilton Mountain got me there directly. Entering my home address rerouted me in an entirely different direction. I wanted to take the same route home, yet no matter how I configured it, the navigation system refused to cooperate. For several days, this went on. I went the way I wanted anyway, and concluded for the first time in my life I was being told you can’t from here to there.

On a recent trek though mountain country near Whistler, B.C., without a navigation system we were curious where various roads ended, or better yet, connected up to even more roads. You’re testing a vehicle’s capability nosing down mystery roads, but you’re also testing your own capability to pull a Ginger Rogers if there is no way out: do all the fancy moves that Fred Astaire does but backwards.

Like an old time tracker, you look for signs. Tire tracks are a hopeful indicator; if locals haven’t taken something bigger than an ATV down a particular trail, I’m not going to bother trying. With no technological head’s up of what might be lying in wait down a steep, heavily forested road, we did the only thing that made sense.

We rolled down the window and asked a hiker going by.

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10 responses to Navigation systems: only as good as who made them, and whoever is using them

  1. Sandy says:

    I don’t have a GPS and my car does not have a NAV system. I have a map and I love it.
    I will print out google instructions and the map before I got anywhere that I am uncertain of. I will study the satellite view on my ipad so that I can see what is in the area.
    I have seen those things stop working, or go the strangest ways and drive people mad who are putting all their faith in them.
    Call me old fashioned, but I like paper.

    • Pat says:

      I’m with you Sandy. I still have paper maps. I know, I’m a geezer. I also have a chainsaw, watch out Chris, and a tow strap. If I have to, I can make my own turn around.
      I don’t don’t like the superior tone in the GPS. I understand you can get celebrity voices. I’d like Clint Eastwood saying; ” You missed the turn punk, turn around or I”ll blow a hole in your head!”
      And don’t ask a local walking how to get anywhere, why do you think they are walking dummy. If you really want to get lost, ask a group of teenagers how to get where you want to go.

      • Zena says:

        I resemble that remark Pat. I can’t count how many times people have stopped me to ask where such-and-such a street is, and my mind goes completely blank.

        I blame it on the fact that when we lived in the country, there were half a dozen road names we had to remember. Directions usually consisted of “turn left at the stop sign, keep going all the way over the biiiiiig hill, and it’s a right at the very next crossroads you come to. Keep going until you hit the funky teal mailbox – it’s the only one on the south side of the road. If you come to the dead end, you’ve gone too far.”

    • David Taylor says:

      Like Google Maps or MapQuest never make errors? Hmmm… some of my worst mis-adventures occurred using one or other of these methods.

  2. Kerry says:

    I have paper maps in my cab . Of course i can’t read them at night by the map lights any more . (I can read them in daylight fine) I bought an iphone because it has Apple maps and Google maps . It’s come in very handy In my job . The gps was just something else to drag around at the beginning and end of my shift .

  3. Sandy says:

    I spent years through high school and university working at a gas station.
    People seemed to think that because I worked there, I would know directions.
    I was a teenager who had lived nowhere but Burlington my entire life and if they wanted to stay in town I could help them, but more than that and I would point them to the maps we sold.
    Even for the in town stuff, I know I got my lefts and rights mixed up sometimes.

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