Thursday, February 24, 2011

Driving by GPS

While driving around the Land of Many People this week, my sweet wife and I decided it would be useful to take our GPS navigation system with us. It's amazing how you can tell when someone is driving by GPS, even without seeing it through the windows of their vehicle.

When you first turn on your GPS navigation system, a screenful of small words appears, warning you that (1) the GPS may get you lost, and (2) you shouldn't pay attention to it when you're supposed to be driving. Before you can continue to the next screen, you must click on the "I Agree" button on the screen.

I'm not sure how they expect you to effectively use the GPS if you're not supposed to pay attention to it while you're driving. In addition, I'm not sure why anybody would voluntarily use a GPS if there's a greater than 5 percent chance that you will get lost while using it. Be that as it may, let us continue.

In a situation where I was 15 miles from home, with only my young granddaughter in the car with me, and nothing but unknown territory between me and my destination, I had to rely on the GPS to guide me, in spite of the two caveats previously mentioned. I quickly learned two important lessons about driving by GPS - lessons that can be extended to life in general, for those who are wise enough to find the lessons in this narrative.

The first lesson I learned is that GPS drivers have a certain driving style. It's easy to pick them out on the road - not because you can see the devices suction-cupped to the windshield or nestled into the dashboard, but because they tend to make abrupt turns and stops that coincide, oddly enough, with the advice your own GPS is giving you. My first reaction to these drivers was annoyance (yeah, as if I wasn't driving the same way they were, you know?), which was supplanted by amusement, and finally by compassion and a deeper understanding of what motivated them.

GPS drivers drive the way they do because they're not looking at the big picture. They're only looking at the next turn, or the next intersection. At the most, they're looking a half-mile or a mile down the road. They cannot be bothered to look beyond that point, trusting completely in the touch-screen-enabled silicon wonder with the mechanical voice that tells them where to go and what to do.

And that leads to the second lesson: in order to use a GPS navigation system effectively, you need to keep the big picture in mind. When Harriet on your GPS tells you to "Turn left at the next intersection to get onto Route 7 west," and you are confronted with a maze of orange cones and Jersey barriers, and two detours that Harriet didn't know about, what do you do? Well, you do your best, and depending on what kind of algorithms Harriet is running, she will take one of three actions:
1) Tell you to turn around as soon as possible, because you are a moron, as her tone of voice informs you.
2) Go passive-aggressive, and shut up completely, because if you're not going to follow her directions, why should she even bother giving you any? Hmph.
3) Attempt to calculate a new route to your destination, based on your new position and heading. This can take a minute or more.

GPS drivers go into a sheer panic when they observe any of these three actions, particularly the second one. I have seen GPS drivers slam on their brakes on a busy on-ramp because Harriet objected to their actions. (I know that that's what happened because she objected to my actions too, but I was a few cars back and had to slam on my brakes simply to avoid the vehicles in front of me.)

By keeping the big picture in mind, you know that when Harriet says "turn left to get onto Route 7," and the left turn she was expecting you to take has been closed off and replaced by the aforementioned cones and Jersey barriers, then you simply need to follow the signs that say "to Route 7 west," ignore your GPS until you are safely westbound on Route 7, and then press the buttons that will bring Harriet back to your side.

In conclusion:
When you drive, trust your GPS, but don't become a slave to it. Remember to use your brain. Look at the big picture. And whatever you do, please don't drive like a GPS driver.


Jason Depew said...

This is an increasingly big problem for pilots with glass cockpits too. What happens if you lose electrical power? I still make a point of forcing my students to learn and be proficient with a map and compass. I don't have a GPS for my's fun going hundreds of miles cross country without the help of any gadgetry. So, to go with your theme of paying attention to the big picture, I'd say it can't hurt to make sure you build yourself a good mental big picture before you start your trip...or just carry that old paper chart and use it to back George up.

Zyzmog said...

Well said, Jason. Even backcountry hikers, who enjoy the benefits of GPS as much as drivers and pilots, should keep a map and compass with them, and know how to use them. A map and compass don't take batteries, don't need to link up with a satellite, and don't reboot or erase their memories. GPS is a great tool, but users need to always remember that GPS can fail.

Zyzmog said...
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