Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is little more than a misplaced faith in technology

I don't have a GPS unit for my car yet, but I've been on business trips where the driver rented a car equipped with a Garmin, and I've seen how compelling that pleasingly authoritarian computer voice can be. It always knows where to go, where to turn, and when -- at least until you're trying to return the rental to the airport counter, and it has a sudden nervous breakdown on the badly mapped local roads surrounding the airport.

Aside from the occasional glitch like that, it's easy to see how motorists could come to depend on them a little too much. Or way too much -- as has been happening in England lately, where truck drivers have been following their "sat navs" with reckless abandon through tiny village lanes not designed for truck traffic, just because their GPS system identifies this as the shortest route.
“I’ve just come from a community today where a lorry had literally lifted the roof off a house as it tried to get past,” Mr. Matthews said.

Some communities have begun putting up signs warning drivers to ignore their G.P.S. devices on rural roads. But signs seem to be less and less effective as people increasingly rely more on G.P.S. systems and less on maps, common sense or their own eyes.

“We’ve heard some very hilarious stories where people just blindly follow the sat nav instructions,” said Vince Yearley, a spokesman for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, using British shorthand for “satellite navigation.” “Like if the sat nav says, ‘Drive into this muddy field,’ they think, ‘That’s weird,’ but they do it anyway.”
Ironically, on the same day that the New York Times ran this cautionary report from the English countryside, their science columnist John Tierney, sounding as if he were a bit punch drunk from too many hours behind the wheel of a lorry himself, wrote a bright-eyed, speculative column on the promising future of driverless car technology.
As the baby boomers cruise into their golden years, I have good news for them — and for everyone else in danger of being run over by these aging drivers. The boomers will not be driving like Mr. Magoo. An electronic chauffeur will conduct them on expressways, drop them at the mall entrance and then go park their cars.


In the near future, guided not just by G.P.S. satellites but by high-precision internal maps and inertial sensors, they’ll know their position so precisely that they won’t even need lane markings for guidance. They’ll communicate with other smart cars on the road, enabling a swarm of closely spaced cars to move in unison (and react more quickly to problems than humans drivers could). A road system filled with these cars wouldn’t even need traffic lights — the cars could just talk among themselves.
Not so fast Mr. Tierney. Keep your hand on the wheel a bit longer. You might want to check out some of those villages in England before giving the keys to your robot driver.

1 comment:

George H. said...

I visited my friends Bob and Trine in Oslo last March at their new (for them) cliffside condo-apartment on the Oslofjord. The building was very narrow and, to get to it, I had to drive a thank-goodness tiny rental car nearly straight up the hillside and past two hairpin turns on a road just wide enoug for this small car, and then park on the condo's roof. Bob told me a lorry driver had tried to deliver furniture at an address on that squiggle of a street a few months previous, and had gotten so wedged that a large crane was brought in to lift the truck out. The lorry driver from Poland was merely following his GPS, which showed a perfectly ordinary road alongside the fjord.