Bad Directions: A Cautionary Tale of GPS Misbehavior

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Car navigator in action

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation) – When the New York Times reported last month that Google was developing a car that could drive itself through traffic, Jon Kelly at the BBC wondered whether we could ever learn to love driverless cars. Kelly quoted “motoring journalist” Quentin Willson, who doubted the level of trust people would have in robot drivers. “The human brain can react quickly to the blizzard of information we're confronted with on the roads,” Willson told the BBC. “By contrast, we know what sat nav is like—it takes you on all sorts of circuitous routes.”

Indeed. The pair of articles brought to mind a harrowing tale I’d heard about a rogue GPS that had led a friend’s car astray. The vehicle in question was not piloting itself, but was being driven by Liesl Schillinger, a writer and literary critic who happens to write frequently for the Times.

A few years ago, Schillinger was on her way to an interview in rural New Hampshire. It was a humid August day in the White Mountains, and she was driving her rented Hyundai with its windows down, enjoying the “gorgeous and enveloping” smell of pine and trusting fully in her GPS device to guide her.

“At first it was idyllic,” she remembered in an email to me. “I passed a quaint red barn and farmyard, where picturesque Holsteins grazed, then entered a kind of woods.  At first I marveled at how lovely and rugged it was to be driving in such refreshingly unblemished wilderness, but as the road through the trees got steeper, to the point of being nearly vertical (like skiing uphill), I grew doubtful.”

But the fuchsia line on the screen was unmistakably clear, she told me. “The voice kept blandly ordering me onward. It was just a mile and a half to the house, "she" (the voice) said, so I decided to persevere.”

Schillinger came to a clearing in the trees, and found herself and car “atop a rocky plateau, like in the Jeep Cherokee ads—you know,  where the jeep perches on some  jagged butte where it has been airlifted like a stunned hippopotamus.” She stopped and opened her door to examine the terrain, doubtful that her mid-size could handle the steep, rocky grade. She wanted to call the woman she was visiting, but she had no cell reception. So she pressed on, trusting her robotic navigator.

“I managed to drive the car down the rocks, say, five hundred feet, at which point the scree turned into a damp muddy narrow roadlet through a forest,” Schillinger recalls.

“A huge truck must have made it down there, I figured, because there were parallel muddy ridges in the road. Finding that (wrongly) reassuring, I maneuvered the wheels so the car could ride the raised solid-ish muddy ridges.” But her path grew muckier. The GPS told her she was only a half mile from the house, she had 25 minutes to make it, and she saw what appeared to be a dried out creek bed ahead. “I decided the Hyundai would have to be up to it.  Um, bad idea. Roll, roll, thud. The car blurted and creaked, the wheels whirred and smoked, and bammo, I was stuck.”

Luckily, Schillinger’s cell phone now worked, “on this side of the mountain. Yes, mountain. I had driven over a disused snowmobile path (previously a carriage path!) on a mountaintop.” Her interviewee sent a rescue party, a farmer with a hay baling truck, who towed her car out of the rut. “I then took the car to a car wash (more afraid of rental car fees than of my own safety) and sped like a demon to the airport and made my flight back out of the wilds in the nick of time.”

The experience, Schillinger says, was petrifying. “It has essentially made me want to drive as rarely as possible; or, if I must drive, to have a companion with me who can decode the GPS (or denounce it).”

This might not have all the makings of a major motion picture, but the unruly-transportation thriller genre is hot right now, and a Garmin or a Google car could easily become our generation’s Hal 9000.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.