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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Getting lost with GPS

The technology works but not all the users do

Written and dispatched from Great Torrington, Devon, via a free wi-fi connection

For more than seven years now I have been using in-car GPS and have always found it an invaluable aid in almost every aspect of any journey. Being able to see approaching junctions or reductions from a dual to single carriageway well ahead of time and to find alternative routings in a jam or in rapidly slowing traffic are just two of the features I really value.

I don't think there is an aspect of GPS that I don't find useful at some time - it offers much more than just keying-in a location and following instructions. More recently units showing the real-time slowing of traffic and the creation of jams have become available. To my mind, this feature plus the addition of real-time auto-rerouting in response to such hazards and likely delays is the icing on the cake!

So where does all the bad press for GPS come from? I must admit the directions are not always perfect. So I always carry a map and have a mind-map of the UK and large swathes of the US.

When given GPS directions, I always ask: is that reasonable? If I find myself faced with a single-track road with grass down the middle, I get suspicious real fast. Likewise, when I get a new routing I check the logicality against my knowledge of the area and/or a map. This is not so, it would appear, for a lot of the so-called victims of GPS.

Recent press articles have attempted to sensationalise people being confronted by deep and impassable fords, being jammed in narrowing lanes which are little more than a cart track, or having a 90km journey turned into an 1,000km nightmare.

All of this prompted me to do two things. First, to conduct a simple experiment with the navigational setting on a standard GPS system. Second, to discuss the use of GPS with other users of various ages. My findings are not surprising!

By merely selecting options for the route such as 'shortest', 'fastest' and 'make maximum use of motorways options' in random combinations, the navigation advice varied from sensible to lunatic. And to my near complete dismay, most of the people with GPS I spoke with did not own a map or road atlas, and many youngsters didn't appear to have a mind-map of the UK either. No wonder people are getting lost!

Occasionally I get to use GPS on a boat and whilst it is a powerful tool I wouldn't want to try navigating without a set of up-to-date charts. But it appears that here too people have a go at doing so. All of this is crazy but not half as crazy as blaming the technology!

GPS works and it works well and like the much maligned mobile phone, it also saves a lot of lives every year.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to throw away my road atlas and maps for some time!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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