GPS Sucks

From the new Atlantic:

Four researchers compared the effectiveness of a cell phone equipped with a GPS receiver to traditional paper maps and to "direct experience" (first walking through a route with a guide, then trying it alone). They asked 66 participants to each walk six different routes, finding their way each time using one of the three navigational aids, and later to sketch from memory the routes they had taken. The GPS users traveled longer distances, walked more slowly, and made more stops during the walk than the participants using the low-tech methods, and they made more directional errors and rated the overall experience as more difficult than did the direct experience groups. Perhaps because the GPS users were more focused on the information on their small screens than on their surroundings, the maps they drew showed a less accurate recollection of their routes.

I'm always impressed by how people will completely ignore common sense when listening to that robotic voice telling them to turn left or turn right. A few months ago, I was taking a taxi to the airport and the driver, who had probably driven to the airport hundreds of times, decided to use his brand new GPS unit. (If memory serves, it had been a Christmas present.) Anyways, he kept on saying stuff like "This is an interesting route" and "Wow, I never would have gone this way" and "I wonder why we're going north when the airport is south". After about 25 minutes of driving in the wrong direction, the driver eventually realized that he'd plugged in the wrong address. But he was willing to believe an obviously deluded machine for a disconcertingly long time. I almost missed my flight.

The moral, I guess, is that we should trust our hippocampal place cells.

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I've never understood why people would use a GPS receiver in a city. A map would seem to be a much better choice if you're not familiar with the route (and if you are, why use anything but your brain?). Out in the wilderness, though, there have been times when a GPS receiver has been invaluable to me - navigating across an icefield in a white-out, for example.

rfguy, my wife is significantly navigationally challenged. She cannot remember routes that she has been driving for 20 years. She recently got a Garmin, and it has been wonderful. It does not always produce an optimal route, but it does get her around without calling OnStar all the time. I love the thing.

For a few more GPS horror stories try:

One reason to use a GPS in a city is that the unit will give you verbal directions which allows you to keep your eyes on the road.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 09 May 2008 #permalink

My suburban friend always uses GPS when driving in the city. It is frequently wrong (leading the driver to yell, "you stupid bitch") or gives a longer, more indirect route than I would suggest. I walk the city a lot, take public transportation, and having lived here for nearly 30 years I know how the city is laid out. By the time the address has been input and the route calculated, I will have already given directions. Of course my directions usually differ from the ones given by "the stupid bitch."

There is an Aberdeenshire farmer who has considerably supplemented his income by ignoring the potatoes and concentrating on towing out cars who follow their GPS onto the "road" which crosses one of his fields -- a road which is actually a tractor track going through a couple of major ditches....but people don't look before they try driving through, they just assume that the GPS wouldn't direct them wrong.

Blind trust of technology, disregarding common sense. We've known this was a problem for a long time, though, haven't we?

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 09 May 2008 #permalink

An upcoming (in America) / recent (in Britain) Dr. Who episode actually has a major plot point or two based on that blind trust people are putting into their car GPS systems.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 09 May 2008 #permalink

GPS may not be nearly as effective as having a guide the first time you travel a route, but it has many advantages, including the fact that guides are often gypsies who will abduct you and force you to listen to their music.

More seriously, of course GPS sucks... so far. It's a very young technology.

I would really want to separate GPS-as-compass and GPS-as-map as completely separate ways of using it. ALmost all problems we hear about stems from the mapping function, not the direction-and-distance finding. Using a GPS as a specialized compass, trained on your destination, is immensely beneficial. It tells you if you're oriented the way you thought you were, and gives you feedback on the approximate whereabouts of your goal in your own body-centered coordinate system. Forget the map part; that's just distracting.

And rfguy, if you think GPS has no part in city navigation, you've never lived in a city like Tokyo or Osaka, where most streets have no name (they actually do, usually, but it's not part of the address, and there's usually no street signs), and house numbers are noncontiguous or missing altogether from the address. That's exactly where GPS-as-compass is a real lifesaver. And even when a city is easier to navigate than the pathological case of Tokyo, knowing the direction and approximate distance to your destination really helps you ori8ent yourself.

I'm obviously bucking the tide here, but I must say I've found using GPS a great boon when traveling BY CAR in strange cities -- as well as the few miles I sometimes drive in Boston, which I should sort of know my way around by now, but which is infamously hard to navigate. (I don't drive in Boston once I'm there; much much easier to use the T or walk). But my NUVI does me much better than maps do when driving, for it saves me trying to refer to directions or a map while also attending to driving in a strange city. It has steered me slight wrong a couple of times; but I used to get lost EVERY time I drove into Boston, and now I don't.

Walking, however, I wouldn't bother. We should note that in this study the subjects were all on foot -- a scenario in which I would EXPECT using a GPS to be less useful and more time-consuming than referring to a map.

I better go. I need to find my way downstairs to bed now.

GPS does not suck in and of itself -- it's the false confidence that people get from "smart" GPS mapping units. I use a handheld unit for car navigation from time to time -- it has no mapping function, which I really could use, but it's still pretty useful as a backup to printed directions.

GPS abuse has become something of a running joke on traffic reports around Boston lately though -- Storrow and Memorial Drive are the main roads along the Boston and Cambridge sides respectively of the Charles River, and Storrow in particular has a lot of low-height underpasses. The on-ramps are fairly well-marked NO TRUCKS, but it's gotten to the point where a traffic reporter was referring this morning to the "daily overheight truck" on one of the roads. This is particularly troubling in Boston itself, as Boston's notoriously squiggly roads are notoriously difficult to properly enter in an electronic mapping system. (During the height of the Big Dig, around 2000-2003 or so, Mapquest spokespeople occasionally admitted that when it came to Boston, Mapquest often didn't know its ass from its elbow.)

I've never understood how computers have had such false authority -- it's like nobody's ever heard "Garbage In, Garbage Out."

One of my concerns about the use of technology is certainly the abuse. The first time I got in contact with a GPS was when my real state agent drove me through different places after typing the addresses on the screen. It really struck me and for a few days I thought I couldn't live without one of those. But the thought that it would make my life so easy I was not going to have the necessity of using my brains held me back to take the decision to buy one. And perhaps I'm wrong and we should make our lives much easier but then we shouldn't get amazed when we no longer can solve simple puzzles.

There was a scene in the television show The Office where a GPS device leads Steve Carell to drive his car into a lake. I wish I could find a video clip online, but he was in denial even as the car was plunging into the water.

Frontal Compensation

As a secondary teacher, the only one using brain-based pedagogy in my school, I am familiar with compensation-something that the GPS and power-points do to the adolescent brain. Even as adults, we become inordinately attached to artificial intelligence. We are are not training our brain. The more we rely on AI, our brains lose the ability to use what are now considered 'old school' techniques. It is difficult to interface with...well our brains.


By Frank Greco (not verified) on 11 May 2008 #permalink

I like the numerous reports of people turning when told to, EXACTLY when they're told to, e.g. 'turn right now' so they turn right before waiting for such things as a road & turn into a brick wall!

& Lots of people trust the GPS navigator down a small road that ends in a ford through a river. It must be OK, the navigator says so...proceeds to flood car in deep ford.

Information doesn't neccessarily make humans more intelligent, often just lazier (robots to do the work for us, etc etc)


I love my GPS -- her British accented, bossy voice led me to christen her "Maggie". It helps that I talk to her as we go along, sometimes thanking her, often arguing, seems to keep me aware of what's going on.

Last year when I was living in a strange city enwebbed with freeways (a faster way to get lost), she would get me home when a map full of tiny tiny street names would merely reduce me to speechless rage.

On the downside, the database needs updating quite often (not surprising) and part of that is the updating of business locations. For instance, Maggie led me unerringly to the place where the IKEA used to be, three years earlier, two years before I purchased her.

But by and large, I am a fan. No lake detours yet.


By Noni Mausa (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

GPS navigation devices can be over used and I am sometimes guilty of over using mine.

But when in an unknown city it is a lot easier and safer using the GPS rather than looking at a map every couple of minutes. The extra time saved using the GPS can be spent doing something you enjoy instead of driving round in circles! But then again I do love my GPS ha!!

I haven't experienced the new GPS units that are so popular now, but my Dad has had one since back in the early 90s, before they were able to give verbal directions.

I feel that the main advantage to a GPS system is that it's much smaller than most maps and therefore easier to use in a vehicle. This advantage is, of course, completely negated if you're not using it in a vehicle.

As far as Boston goes, I find the best solution is to get a native Bostonian to drive whenever possible.

Last summer my rental car's GPS device took me on a wild ride through the mountains of Idyllwild, CA after dark. If you have ever been there you know there are no lights in much of the mountain area and the roads zig-zag like snakes. Thank goodness I drove by the home of some nice people who were sitting outside enjoying the summer as they kindly told me that they have been re-directing a lot of other lost GPS mountain drivers.

I got where I needed to go, thanks to the human element.

've never understood why people would use a GPS receiver in a city. A map would seem to be a much better choice if you're not familiar with the route (and if you are, why use anything but your brain?). Out in the wilderness, though, there have been times when a GPS receiver has been invaluable to me - navigating across an icefield in a white-out, for example.

I don't know where this weird idea of a GPS being useless in a city comes from. Have those folks EVER looked at a map of residential areas of cities? Sure some of them are laid out like a grid, but have you tried to really navigate using a paper map, with missing, or illegible street names by yourself in your car? How is a talking GPS that is usually pretty accurate a bad thing? We aren't talking about the suburbs where ofton there are 1 or 2 ways to go and using a map is just as easy as a GPS. We aren't talking about a highway where you have 1 direction to go for several miles.

Honestly, I would be unable to make reasonable time getting to new places without using my GPS. But I also don't understand the other end of the spectrum (where my wife sits) with this diehard adherence to the unit. If I know the best route to get home from work....the GPS will serve several purposes. Telling me when I will arrive (already know this one), how fast i'm going (again, my car will tell me this anyway), how many minutes until I get there (use use math, really, you already know anyway). In these situations, its just taking up space in my windshield.

Why some people blindly follow the instructions when the merest application of self thought would show the unit to be wrong is beyond me.

Why some people insist on using a GPS to get to where they know they are going is beyond me.

But to claim that GPS is useless, especially in the city, is also beyond me. GPS has its place. Its a digital map. You don't look at your paper map to get home everytime, would you?

I hate GPS but my spouse loves them and is a techno geek. The GPS is frequently incorrect and adds STRESS when it is incorrect or crashes due to some internal error. I use a good old map and memorize the directions before I leave for the destination. Some of these things are just a way to sell more electronic toys. I do love the maps in the iPhone and use those if we are on foot. Besides, I love to think and not blindly rely on some device that may be wrong. One time, the GPS led us in a loop and down a desert road that ended up being a dry wash. Maybe in about 20 years when they are bullet proof - but for now I will rely on my brain!