Does the GPS Know Something I Don’t?

Yesterday I had dinner plans with a friend for Thai food at 5:30, right in the middle of rush hour. So I entered the destination into Google Maps on my phone, selected the fastest route based on traffic, and headed out.

It ended up being a surreal drive. The GPS wanted me to take a certain road to the highway, but as soon as I got on that road, I knew it was a mistake–it was really congested. So I turned off onto an alternate road I knew would take me to the destination.

This is where it got weird. I was a few blocks away from a key turn when the GPS told me to turn onto a road I had never heard of before. I had a few seconds to process the idea. Was Google telling me that the other road was closed? Was there more traffic on that road? What does it know that I do not?!

I doubted myself and yielded to the GPS. It took me on an interesting route that ended up with me in the right place with minimal traffic, so I guess it worked.

It was a really odd experience. Before, when Google Maps didn’t know about traffic or road closures, I wouldn’t have listened to it when it told me to detour from the familiar route.

But now the GPS knows more than I do. It didn’t feel right, but it also didn’t lead me astray, so perhaps it’s time for me to trust the machine more than my admittedly poor sense of direction.

Have you ever had this happen? Who do you trust more, yourself or Google Maps?


6 thoughts on “Does the GPS Know Something I Don’t?”

  1. Someone I know recently bought a car that automatically parks. It turns the wheel for you, has some cameras on every side and all you do is use the gas/brakes and shift it into reverse.

    I definitely feel that self-driving cars aren’t that far away. They might even be safer, with no blind spot for cyclists!

    • I really look forward to self-driving cars, though it’s going to be weird to let go of that control. That’s really cool about the self-parking car.

  2. GPS technology has definitely gotten smarter in the past 5 years. We took a trip to San Francisco some time ago and the GPS told us to take a left. This would’ve been bad – it would have meant driving off an elevated bridge onto the road passing underneath. A few years before that, Yahoo!Maps told me to drive through a building in Chicago (I did not).

    I can’t speak to the algorithm that Google Maps uses for traffic, but I will say that the interface (Google Maps Engine, GME) will no longer to available to a lot of apps come January 2016. That’s going to affect a lot of websites that show you how to get to a given store location, but it may also impact your own GPS depending on what system it uses.

  3. I remember one major GPS failure a few years ago when I was driving to Kentucky Lake for the weekend to hang out with my parents, aunt, and uncle. It had been a couple of years since I’d been there and I was driving at night, so I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary until the GPS advised me to turn on to a dirt road that was mostly washed out from a recent storm with many “no trespassing” signs posted on the fence bordering the road. I finally found a place on the road to do a u-turn (almost landing my car in the ditch in the process), and had the system reroute me, only to then have it tell me to turn onto a road that clearly ended at a boat dock in the lake. At this point, I finally decided to call my uncle and have him give me directions because the navigation system had broken my trust too many times in one night. The next morning we looked up the GPS version on a printed map and discovered that it was trying to get me to drive through someone’s private property.


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