GPS is in the Stone Age

Aug. 4, 2016
Is this "tool we can’t live without" actually messing things up?

There it is again: my little GPS box telling me to take an exit I just drove past—deliberately. That ticks off my GPS. “Recalculating,” it protests peevish­ly in the Australian woman robot voice I’ve got it set to.

You know how everyone, including more and more truckers, loves GPS and has practically signed their life over to it, trusting it to get them everywhere they need to go?

Well, it’s stupid. And most of the GPS services people are using today, handy though they may seem, are somewhere back in the Stone Age in terms of real intelligence.

I won’t name names, but the GPS unit in my car is a respectably new, up-market little device. I’ve used it and other GPS types: factory ones built into cars; web-based apps on my smartphone; and other break-out GPS boxes like the one I’m listening to now.

“Most of the GPS services people are using today ... are somewhere back in the Stone Age in terms of real intelligence.”

Why is GPS stupid? Because I just left LaGuardia Airport and I’m heading home to Connecticut. It’s a rainy night and New York City traffic is fast and finicky as usual; I just crossed the Whitestone Bridge and am headed north on the Hutchinson River Parkway. By day, it can be a comparatively pleasant drive and connects to the two-lane Merritt Parkway, one of southern Connecticut’s primary two east-west roadways, and can take me all the way home.

By any means possible—and almost till I’m all the way home—the GPS I’ve got on as backup wants to get me to I-95.

No one in their right mind who knows better—on a rainy night like tonight and knowing the additional stress and risk of accidents on I-95 between the Bronx and south Connecticut—would leave the Hutchinson for I-95 to save eight minutes getting to Stamford.

Now writing this afterward, indeed there was an accident or two on I-95 that night that would’ve delayed me, and by the way, yes, my GPS has traffic updates.

On another recent drive to southern Pennsylvania, GPS sent me on what it said would be a 3.5-hr. trip via I-78 through New Jersey. Three or four traffic backups later, it took 5.5 hrs. Heading home, I plotted a different course: I drove out of the way north to Scranton, PA, picked up I-84, and took it east all the way to Connecticut. From Shippensburg, PA, it was a 4 hr. 45 min. trip that took a blessed 4 hrs. 45 min., and no GPS on the planet would’ve sent me that way.

Instead, GPS wanted every which way to Sunday to get me to I-78— which, incidentally, would’ve set me up to be trying to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge to get east of the Hudson at about 5 p.m. on a weekday. Anyone see any problems there?

By contrast, my route placed me much farther north, staging me instead to be making that last leg of the trip home driving opposite heavy traffic flow south on I-684. GPS typically ignores what your own brain should know: whether there’s a traffic jam today or not, there’s the likelihood and history of crashes; there’s time of year, time of day, day of week, weather; there are staging points where you’ll be during peak traffic times on a given route.

Advancements are being made with GPS: ALK’s map technology can route around potential traffic snarls like sporting events, for example, and Telogis is crowd-sourcing routing info to make GPS directions smarter.  “It gives you that last-mile intelligence in terms of things like what gate you need to go in at a construction company, what gate to come out of, what dock to back up to if you’re going to Walmart, and things like that,” says Krys Grondorf, vice president for global corporate communications at Telogis. 

But in my view, we’d all do well to look at a map and remember how to read it and get where we’re going.

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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