Curse Of The Gps Unit

Editorial Notebook

August 22, 2009|By Peter Jensen

LOST SOMEWHERE NEAR OGONQUIT, Me. -- It was deep in Stephen King country on a winding two-lane road, dark, forbidding forests on either side, the smell of woodsy decay heavy in the air, that an unfamiliar and inhuman voice suddenly spoke up, startling the mini-van passengers.

"In one-point-four miles, turn right on Blue Star Memorial Highway."


Scary? Well, perhaps you had to be there. Talking GPS navigation units may have become as ubiquitous in the U.S. as bankrupt car manufacturers, but there was still something awfully weird about what was coming out of this particular model.

For one, the voice on the Garmin-manufactured unit had suddenly changed. No longer was it the perky woman with the British accent (the family's preference as she just seems more forgiving than the other software alternatives). The voice now sounded more mechanized and distant.

But strangest of all was that our beloved 4-inch-tall guide had named a road. In nearly two years of use, that had never happened before. It was always turn left or turn right (or the ever-popular "recalculating" after wrong turns) but never - ever - had the little computer suction-cupped to the windshield described a thoroughfare by its actual name.

The curious event was brought to the attention of a Garmin spokesman this week who shrugged it off as nothing more than a glitch. Apparently, most such devices pronounce street names as the default option. It could be that the unit had simply switched to that setting because of a recent software update.

But the incident was a reminder of the growing dependence of our family on GPS technology. No one in our acquaintance orders a AAA Trip Tik Travel Planner anymore. Even downloads or printouts from MapQuest, Google Maps and similar web-based navigational tools with their starting and ending points and sometimes overly explicit directions ("Bear right on ramp") are things of the past.

Whenever we are headed to unfamiliar territory, our GPS girlfriend goes along. My wife is more likely to forget a child at a rest stop than to leave her behind.

Vacation trips are where the units truly shine. Set an unfamiliar address and our lady-of-the-suction-cups will find it - at least most of the time.

Oh, there are glitches. When a road is renumbered, she may land you a mile away from the proper destination. Certain "yellow pages" functions like finding the nearest gas station or restaurant are surprisingly unreliable. Businesses come and go too quickly for the software.

In bad weather, satellites seem to take a while for the unit to acquire. Even then, its accuracy is far from picture perfect. Once, while seeking a ballfield during an out-of-town youth tournament, we watched as a dozen or more cars made a wrong turn in the space of a few minutes - all guided by various models of portable GPS units making identical miscalculations.

Might we be evolving into a nation of lemmings? There are more than 31 million Garmin models in circulation as of last year and that's just one manufacturer, albeit the largest one. We have grown accustomed to following its commands - so much so that a modest change, such as the naming of upcoming streets, seemed disquieting at best.

Still, there are the makings of a terrific King novel here. An innocent family on a holiday. A demonic GPS unit takes over their trip. Frustrated, they pull out a map and it gradually dawns on them - that, that, that - they've no idea how the heck to read one.

Aaaaaaaagh! - Peter Jensen

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