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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GPS, Ton-Tom, Mapquest; We’re Still Lost

Over 750,000 sets of directions are printed from Mapquest every day, and millions of drivers have GPS devices in their cars, and yet it seems that gas station attendants are still bombarded every day with requests for directions.

The fact of the matter is that the electronic direction systems are still fraught with problems, some due to their own inherent weaknesses, and some due to our ever changing world.

They are helpful but not infallible

Many years ago, before GPS devices were common in everyone’s car, I drove a rental car that was equipped with one. The logical assumption was that a car renter would not know the area and would need all the help she could get.  The device immediately got me lost as I left the airport (construction detours). It got me back on track, but I prudently pulled over to give the little fellow time to recover his directional senses before I trusted him again.  I was afraid of driving too far in a completely wrong direction and then being sent back to square one.  After I was on the road again, the highway driving portion worked just fine, but Geepie (I gave him a name after a while) had a hard time with local directions.  One foray took me up a dead end street, another through a street blocked by construction (not his fault) and then, when I was finally on the right road to my destination, it whimsically directed me to make an almost 360 degree turn towards a completely different town. A lovely town, certainly, but not the one where friends were waiting for me. As I said, this was the early days of GPS, and to this day, I cannot understand why it sent me in an opposite direction when my destination was about three blocks ahead of me.

GPS receivers from Trimble, Garmin und LeicaImage via Wikipedia

English: GPS navigation solution running on a ...Image via Wikipedia

Big improvements have been made

Fast forward to the present, when I own my own GPS and can trust it almost religiously to get me where I am going.  Construction sites still boggle it, but it really seems to know where it is going as long as the Department of Transportation lets it through.  I was thoroughly amazed at being able to get to the Holland Tunnel through a bazaar-like maze of streets in lower Manhattan. The directions consisted almost entirely of: “in .2 miles make a left, in .3 miles make a right, in .2 miles make a left”, etc.  My GPS can now can even advise me of traffic delays and send me on an alternate route.

Magellan Blazer12 GPS Receiver.Image via Wikipedia

English: Taxi ride through Kyoto, GPS navigati...Image via Wikipedia

Putting it in writing doesn’t make it right

If you trust the paper versions, don’t be so cocky. Mapquest adds the confidence booster of a map that you can refer to, but Mapquest’s notoriously vague language has rung the death knell for many a happy relationship.  And you have to have a co-pilot, or you cannot use these written directions. My favorite direction is something like: “Drive 5 miles toward route 22; take ramp on right to Interstate 95.” What happened to 22? Should I be watching for the signs for 22 or 95? Or how about the famously near fatal “Bear right on ramp, make left at intersection.”? Better be able to both read fast and drive fast.

A GPS is just one more piece of technology that can help you find your way to your loved ones, in a literal sense! If you don't feel like driving, but you still want to keep in touch, try a free people search for mailing addresses and other contact information. A postage stamp is a lot cheaper than a GPS unit.

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