I’ve tested a lot of GPS units over the years — probably more than any other Australian tech journalist. That’s why a recent ABC story regarding a family of four that got trapped after following their GPS unit’s instructions (http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/02/2970371.htm) made my brain spin a bit. The family got bogged after driving down a closed road that the GPS indicated was the correct route. According to the ABC report, the driver ignored road closure signs to do so, and as a result got bogged in thick mud. Four days later, emergency services were able to tow them out.
While I’ve got sympathy for the family in that spending four days trapped with kids in a car can’t be much fun, that sympathy only goes so far. Yes, the GPS unit may have indicated that the closed road was the way to drive. It’s entirely possible the driver wasn’t familiar with the roads in question. I’ve certainly used GPS in places where I’ve had no road familiarity at all in the past, and will do so in the future. The majority of the problem, however, isn’t in the GPS. It’s in the person behind the wheel ignoring road signs and road rules.
Does that seem harsh? I don’t think so. A GPS is just a big electronic map. It’s not yet feasible to update maps on an absolutely dynamic level. In this case that would involve the local authorities noting on a database somewhere that the road in question was closed due to dangerous conditions, and that data being sent to every nearby GPS system. Currently GPS systems are limited by the data that was present when the maps were drawn up. In that context it’s exactly as smart as a paper map would have been. GPS systems can be smarter, though, as they’re capable of re-routing if you go the “wrong” way. I’ve certainly had a share of GPS units that have given wacky directions. Perhaps the most memorable was when driving back from Adelaide to Sydney, and having a GPS insist that the fastest possible route was via a small country town in Victoria. When I say small, though, that might be a bit of an understatement. I understand Melbourne’s quite bustling these days.
That was daft instruction, and the GPS system’s fault. I read the road signs, realised it was wrong and adjusted my driving accordingly. The GPS spent a very short while thinking I was driving the wrong way before adjusting its outlook and sending me on the right way. If I’m reviewing a unit I’ll certainly note its errors, as they should improve over time, but the correct thing to do isn’t to ignore road signs, road rules or common sense, in exactly the same way that you shouldn’t do when driving without a GPS. Most GPS systems can have maps updated on a regular basis, and many now come with multi-year map subscriptions. GPS systems can and do go wrong, but they don’t drive the car for you. The driver does. They’re an aid to driving, and a very pleasant one that I’d say still gets it right more often than having a badly folded map illegally wrapped around your legs while you try to navigate and drive could ever do.