Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Are We There Yet?
August 15, 2011 5:01 PM   Subscribe

GPS and the End of the Road (Bonus: The science of driving directions)
posted by vidur (31 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
The last paragraph does a great job of describing what it is I don't like about being a tourist.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:10 PM on August 15, 2011


GPS in cars is amazing technology and is only going to get better. If some people have accidents looking at the GPS screen how many used to crash because they were fumbling with a map in their lap or arguing with their wife about not asking for directions? Problems occur when people rely on old data because they haven't shelled out for the updates and so end up driving the wrong way up a newly designated one way street but that's hardly the technology's fault. You can still take the scenic route if you want, but for navigating around parts of a city you've never been to before it's a godsend. Just one of the many amazing things that were undreamed of by the science fiction writers of yesterday but are taken for granted today.
posted by joannemullen at 5:10 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


having to look around to take stock of where cars are when I suddenly need to swerve across several lanes realise I have to go around the block again to get in the correct lane.

I don't think it's GPS that's making this bloke a bad driver.
posted by GeckoDundee at 5:38 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


If you want to really experience a place, you have to rely on human-powered transportation, such as biking or walking. Installing a GPS in one's car does not really make the driver more disconnected from the landscape.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:44 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Since getting the navigation program on my phone I've found a whole new hobby; heading out to a new city within a day's drive for a concert, taking a couple of days, and exploring the city. Hitting the restaurants with interesting reviews, seeing the sights near whatever hotel we end up at, enjoying the thrill of being someplace we don't know... but don't have to be bewildered by.

While this wasn't impossible in the past, the navigation built into my phone makes the act of exploring a whole new city ridiculously easy. Likewise, the GPS unit I use for hiking is like toggling the overhead map in an RPG, it's like a function I always wish the wilderness had; while I used to hike before I had one, I hike and camp a lot more now that it's so easy to navigate the trails.

It certainly doesn't feel like I'm less connected to my world. But I guess someone has to find a fuzzy way to be against all new technology; good for Ari N. Schulman for taking that on.
posted by MrVisible at 5:50 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


The key advantage to a gps is that it makes a wrong turn irrelevant- fail to hit your exit, and it blithely recalculates your best route. Once people internalize this, it may reduce accidents- fewer folks swerving across four lanes of traffic to stay on their triptych.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:02 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Navigational benefits of GPS are many, and quite obvious. But there is so much more being done around it. Just yesterday, someone showed me an iPhone app (for Australian market, though I am sure other markets have similar apps as well) that lets you take a photo (with your iphone camera) of a house (from the street), and then, within seconds, gives you all the real estate market information about that property - last sale date and price, address (of course), prices of properties around it, inside photos of the property (from previous listings) etc. None of the information is new per se. It has all been available for a while, even online. But the convenience of having it all presented like that is just amazing.
posted by vidur at 6:13 PM on August 15, 2011


I was a pretty early adopter on GPS; I bought my first one sometime around 2000, a little handheld Garmin unit. I hooked it up to a laptop via serial cable, and had a homegrown nav system that's pretty much like most cars have now. The cables went freaking everywhere, but functionally it was the same thing. (Well, it didn't have voice commands, but despite claiming to, neither does my car. :) )

GPS is absolutely transformative in how you see the world. It just floored me. As I said repeatedly at the time: "This is the biggest invention since the lightbulb. Light bulbs did away with the dark; the GPS does away with being lost. You always know where you are, to within ten or fifteen feet, and that has never before been true in all of human history. This is a big deal."

The later GPS advancements have only improved things; having the complete Google Maps via network link on your cellphone fixes the fundamental problem even more thoroughly. A regular GPS tells you where you are; a nav-enabled cellphone (or similar device) also tells you where to go. And you can tuck the device in your pocket, and use it for fifty other things as well.

A smartphone may be the best tool for travelers ever. You're never lost, and you can locate and/or summon virtually any good or service you might need, all from a device that's always in your pocket. If you don't know an area, a smartphone with a good browser is effing magic.
posted by Malor at 6:17 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love our GPS. I means I can make semi-random turns on a trip and see funky little towns and still find my way. I am more connected.
That said, driving somewhere with GPS, then exploring on a bike makes me think I live in wonderful times.
posted by cccorlew at 6:30 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


GPS directions are only an interim technology. Soon we won't have to drive at all.

The article talks about Google pushing to get self-driving cars made legal. Since then they have done this in Nevada.

Listening to the GPS might last for a few more decades, but by the 2020s car driving will hopefully be seen as something most people don't bother with.
posted by sien at 6:39 PM on August 15, 2011


I drove a 1997 Mitsubishi Diamante with a dash-mounted, touch-activated GPS console when I lived in Japan. There was a little CD drive in the trunk where you inserted the map data (the GPS receiver was built into the rear windscreen), and by around 2000 or 2001 the map data was becoming increasingly outdated as new roads were built, although a couple of times I found myself in the middle of a rice field, even though there was a road clearly marked on the display.

I liked GPS because it provided great directions for navigating complex interchanges and freeway entry ramps.

Man, I loved that car...
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 PM on August 15, 2011


A smartphone may be the best tool for travelers ever.

It will be once international data roaming charges become sane, so it doesn't cost me $50 to view Google Maps on my phone. I'm traveling to the US next month. I'm printing out the maps I need beforehand.
posted by Jimbob at 7:08 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not to bring up the actual topic of TFA, but I thought the most salient point was the disconnect between Internet directions (turn right on Main Rd, then left on Sometown Rd, then right on Othertown Road, then ... ) versus the 'rational' layout of the highway system, where all of that can be expressed by 'follow route 19,' say.

That's how I always drive -- usually with four or five route numbers and compass directions scrawled on the back of an envelope. People look at you like an alien when you try to discuss it, though, and GPS has certainly exacerbated this disconnect.
posted by zvs at 7:56 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There used to be bus traps (literally holes in the road that cars fall into that large buses can go over) at an alternate entrance to my community in Calgary. It used to be rare to see a car trapped in it but last summer something changed and there was one in there almost daily because one of the GPD maps updated to show it as a route. There were MASSIVE signs with pictures and warning text and I now fully believe stories about drivers blindly following GPS directions into rivers/lakes/sides of buildings/off cliffs.

The traps are now filled with cement and the buses have a remote control to open a gate when they need through.
posted by jeffmik at 8:08 PM on August 15, 2011


As with most of the commenters above, I've found smartphones/Internet-on-the-go/Google Maps/GPS to be a wonderful and amazing and enabling tool and I can see the potential for them to be even more so.

I've also found that idiots with technology tend to remain idiots. That sure as hell didn't start with GPS; my guess is it started somewhere around the time our primate ancestors first found uses for rocks and sticks.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:12 PM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I worked for Rand McNally from 1997 to 2003 in product development and in nearly all cycles of their GPS offerings. We were one of the first to create devices for the Palm (III, IIIc, V, VII) devices and won awards at CES for these creations. GPS was not new but bringing an affordable device to the consumer, was. In the late 90s you were relegated to buying a superior Garmin handheld unit for a pretty hefty sum or you could get one of our devices for $99 and snap it on your Palm. That was the niche were were going after and they sold very well. The mapping portion was all done in-house, using ETAK data, by some amazingly talented programmers, QA people and a project manager who had a keen vision. I was very, very proud of what we accomplished and learned so much from that experience.

My favorite story has to do with the first shipment of GPS devices for the Palm V. We partnered with Magellan on various aspects of the device so both companies had a little piece of their finger in the pie. The first shipment came in and was sold very, very quickly. I worked in support as well and we began to get inundated with calls about the unit not working. Despite our support team's best efforts, we just could not figure out what was wrong with the units. We started asking customers to send them back to us at our expense so we could investigate further.

A couple of days later, despite having a few defective units, we STILL couldn't figure out why they didn't work. They had no problems powering up but the devices just flat-out refused to see any satellites. Flash forward a day and we had the plant manager from Taiwan and two Magellan guys come to our facility so they could investigate the problem further. The guy from Taiwan figured out the problem. All of the devices were tested and initialized in Taiwan so the on-board memory was storing that data and not re-initializing. Anyone purchasing a device in the U.S. had a unit that was only looking for satellites over/near Taiwan. Our developers quickly created a utility to clear the memory and force the device to reinitialize. Once we started running that on the devices, they worked great. Our next problem was that there were 10,000 brand new devices sitting in our Kentucky warehouse, ready to be shipped to Amazon, Best Buy, Frys, etc.. and they ALL had the same issue. The next thing I know, I'm on a plane with the two Magellan guys, a load of Palm V devices and a suitcase. We flew down there, unboxed EVERY device, reinitialized it and boxed it back up. All 10,000 of them. It took three days and three guys sitting in a hot Kentucky warehouse but we did them all. It was a nightmare. Thankfully there was some "local entertainment" next to the hotel otherwise we would have gone mad.

Subsequent devices just got better and better as we went along but as you well know, those high-end devices just got cheaper and cheaper and the rest is history. It is amazing to me on some level to see how quickly GPS has evolved since then.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:33 PM on August 15, 2011 [12 favorites]


the navigation built into my phone makes the act of exploring a whole new city ridiculously easy

And you also get the new thrill of hunting for a charging slot when your fancy smart phone battery is nearly gone, and without it you won't know how to get home. Fucking Batteries.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:44 PM on August 15, 2011


Actually I feel that phone navigation is a huge step backwards from the self-contained units, and here's why. When you buy a self contained unit the unit has all the maps built in. But, when you use google maps or whatever, your phone needs to be online in order for the GPS to work.

So, what happens if you can't get a signal? Your phone knows where it is, but you won't be able to get maps or anything like that. If you're driving cross country, it will happen.

The question is, why is that? Google and other companies get a huge benefit: realtime stats on everywhere you use the GPS feature. But the result is an actual reduction in quality for the user. You could easily fit basic maps on a microSD card.

---

Anyway, in car nav is a stopgap solution before we get self-driving cars. Some people might like that but think about the benefits. Right now highway speedlimits are lowest common denominator. They're the speed that it's safe for grandpa to drive. With automatic drive the reaction time goes down to nanoseconds, and you have far better optical sensors (with laser rangefinders instead of stereoscopic vision to determine distance) and so on. Cars should be able to travel much faster. There will be no risk of fatique, and you can surf the web or whatever -- you won't get bored as easily.

And of course you'll be able to go to the bars, get drunk, and go home.
posted by delmoi at 10:53 PM on August 15, 2011


We flew down there, unboxed EVERY device, reinitialized it and boxed it back up. All 10,000 of them. It took three days and three guys sitting in a hot Kentucky warehouse but we did them all.

When you say "we", you are referring to three humans, right? Because while I haven't done the math, that sounds like an amazing amount of elbow grease and sleep deprivation. Hats off to you and your robo friends!
posted by vidur at 10:59 PM on August 15, 2011


your phone needs to be online in order for the GPS to work

This is more a bug than a feature. The more recent android google maps versions now allow you download all the maps in a region of choice. 3rd party iOS apps have allowed you to do this in an okay but not great fashion. IRCC iOS 5 will have this baked in.

I don't think this is some conspiracy to get more realtime data, just a programming thing that people never really bothered to do for a while for whatever reason. Maybe a programmer type can explain this.

But it does suck sometimes, man does it suck.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:07 PM on August 15, 2011


The question is, why is that? Google and other companies get a huge benefit: realtime stats on everywhere you use the GPS feature. But the result is an actual reduction in quality for the user. You could easily fit basic maps on a microSD card.

There's a lot of apps based on the OpenStreetMap data which allow downloading of large map chunks. Navdroyd is one for android, there are plenty of iOS apps as well.
posted by benzenedream at 11:18 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


vidur: "We flew down there, unboxed EVERY device, reinitialized it and boxed it back up. All 10,000 of them. It took three days and three guys sitting in a hot Kentucky warehouse but we did them all.

When you say "we", you are referring to three humans, right? Because while I haven't done the math, that sounds like an amazing amount of elbow grease and sleep deprivation. Hats off to you and your robo friends!
"

Yep. Just me and two Magellan guys. It was non-stop, sun up to sundown. A slew of Palm V devices all baking in the Kentucky sun! I still have one of those Palm V devices in my desk drawer. Whenever I see it, I shudder.

Delmoi - If I am remembering correctly, some of the older cellphones actually had an NMEA compliant chip on-board which meant you could conceivably get location data without having to rely on a carrier. The device just had to be on. You could then connect the cell-phone via some wild-assed cabling configuration to a laptop and fire up your favorite mapping software or get some third-party program to do it on the phone. I have been so out of the loop since my Rand McNally days that I may be remembering that incorrectly.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:19 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


And you also get the new thrill of hunting for a charging slot when your fancy smart phone battery is nearly gone, and without it you won't know how to get home. Fucking Batteries.

Um... I have a Droid that's nearly two years old, a ten-dollar USB adapter plugged into my cigarette lighter, and a micro-USB cable. My battery is good for about eight hours of pretty constant use, and I'm not usually walking about in a city longer than that. If I was worried about it, a new battery for my Droid would be cheap, and I could swap that out easily.

My hiking GPS takes AA batteries, and gets about eighteen hours of continuous use out of those; I carry spares.

I also carry a road atlas in the car, and a topo map of the region where I'm hiking.

It's not like "you might run out of batteries" is a surprise that can't be anticipated. It's not a flaw in the technology, it's a limitation that can be worked around. Easily.
posted by MrVisible at 8:15 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


a ten-dollar USB adapter plugged into my cigarette lighter,

$10 USB adapter plugged into your $? car, though?

For those of us without cars, or who don't use cars daily, there are external batteries. It's more to charge and more to carry and they're generally more than $10, but still a lot cheaper than parking in NYC or gas.
posted by Salamandrous at 10:43 AM on August 16, 2011


Please elaborate re: "local entertainment"
posted by growabrain at 11:19 AM on August 16, 2011


Um... I have a Droid that's nearly two years old

That's the problem right there. You need to upgrade to a magnificent 4G phone to cut that battery life in half right off the top. And sure you could just turn off all the features, dim your backlight to its lowest level, etc, but then why did you even but the fancy phone to begin with?

It's not like "you might run out of batteries" is a surprise that can't be anticipated.

That wasn't the point. Technically you never needed a smart phone gps system at all, it just makes life much easier for spur of the moment decisions and trips and such. Maybe you constantly wear some sort of fishing vest stuffed with extra batteries, chargers, alternative GPS systems, maps, compasses, sundials, etc. Sounds awesome.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:55 PM on August 16, 2011


People actually think the way this guy claims to think?
posted by wierdo at 5:15 PM on August 16, 2011


Jimbob wrote: It will be once international data roaming charges become sane, so it doesn't cost me $50 to view Google Maps on my phone. I'm traveling to the US next month. I'm printing out the maps I need beforehand

T-Mobile has unlimited data service for $1.50 a day on prepaid (at least until they're Borged). They throttle you after the first 30 MB, at least on their 3G network. It's more expensive than prepaid in some other countries, but not by much, as long as you don't want to talk to people.
posted by wierdo at 5:26 PM on August 16, 2011


Ugh. As a bike and foot commuter, I am supremely unthrilled that the people to whom I have reluctantly entrusted my life are esentially playing geography video games while driving.
posted by threeants at 10:48 PM on August 16, 2011


Today's dedicated GPS devices suck. They leave little or no room for imagination or thought. You tell it where you wish to go, it tells you how to get there and how long it will take. They aren't even very suited to studying the route in advance. It's very tedious to modify the route the device chooses.

My first GPS was a Garmin IQue. Basically, it was a Palm PDA with GPS. Brilliant. Very nice if you enjoy browsing the map and tweaking your route.

My current GPS is a Tomtom. It features great voice instructions, and receives traffic data over radio. It's extremely good at knowing how long a trip will take. The display is utter crap, but that's not what it's about. It gets you where you're going, but there is no pleasure to be had. However, it does know to avoid routes that will slow you down. The old IQue would happily route you through the heart of a South African township, because that was the shortest way. Oops!
posted by Goofyy at 12:57 AM on August 17, 2011


Delmoi: a killer feature of Nokia's smartphones (that they failed to advertise) was free GPS mapping and navigation for most of the industrial world -- where the maps could be installed onto the phone memory (as well as downloaded once-only ad-hoc)... GPS and navigation worked perfectly when the phone was offline...

HTC's also have built-in maps (branded Route66), and TomTom software is available for iPhones, so not every phone needs to be tied to Google/Bing servers - at least unless you want free!
posted by nielm at 11:44 AM on August 18, 2011


« Older "Hot Wheels, Nerf Balls, Spyrograph, View Masters....  |  Seven boxes marked "WW3" hold ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments