Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Atlantic on GPS Reliability and Traveler Safety

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic looks at GPS reliability of GPS for navigation, especially in rural areas. He wonders:
Can technology be programmed to indicate when it is becoming less reliable? A firm but non-distracting warning, like a yellow or red border around the map, could be a good reminder when leaving zones of high-reliability base maps.

These questions arose from an event in Nevada:
But GPS can go tragically wrong, especially in remote areas, as the tragic death and near-death of a Canadian couple in Nevada illustrated.

"Police in Nevada said the Chretiens were likely led astray by their GPS.

Rex Turner, a GPS engineer based in Oklahoma, said there is no denying the benefits of the product when driving in an established city.

But he said the farther you get out of town, the less reliable the systems' maps become.

"Rural routes are worse, turn by turn data really breaks down out in the country," he said.

Turner said a GPS can't be 100 per cent reliable because it relies on information that is quickly changing.

"Roads are constantly being worked on, neighbourhoods are constantly being built and you're at the mercy of government maps that are quite often old," he said."

Safety may or may not be the main problem (certainly those who error and crash are worse off), but it does seem that the reliability of maps should be known to travelers. If the maps are of low quality, there ought to be some type of notice. This seems like a straightforward product improvement, though perhaps companies never want to admit weakness now if they expect the reliability will improve in the future.

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