Driving by wire

Seattle_avis_assist_gps_navigation_motorI’m a pretty good navigator, but it’s still a pain (and sometimes dangerous) to drive around places you don’t know and read maps at the same time. So, when I was in going to the mid-West and California on business in September I decided to try satnav. Though this technology has been around for decades, it had never seemed to me worth paying for. For this trip, however, my schedule was so tight and my exhaustion level was clearly going to be so high that I thought it might be a one way of taking the pressure off. It really was.

The system I used was simple: you called up a call center and told them the addresses of all the places you wanted to go (you could do this all at once or as needed). Then you just picked the address you wanted from the address book and, after acquiring your position, the phone would show you (on its tiny screen) and tell you (using a computer voice) which way to go when.

If you’re a Mapquest cheapskate as I’ve been for the last few years, you can think of the added value you get like this. Not only do you get directions at will while in your car, but you have someone read them out to you as you go along. More crucially, they’ll download new directions if you take a detour: whether for a pit stop, a wrong turn, or a blocked road.

Of course, the system has it’s limitations. Sometimes it can’t read the GPS, or connect to the server, or needs a reboot. Sometimes it can be slow at figuring out where you are and it’s directions are too late. Sometimes, as with all these systems, it’s just plain wrong: the road it takes you to just doesn’t connect any more. Plus, I would occasionally have to turn down NPR in order to listen out for what to do next.

But the system completely changed the way I looked at my trip. I was completely relaxed about getting from A to B in a way I’ve never been before. I knew that, as long as I left enough time, I’d get there: no more driving around in circles for hours trying to catch glimpses of my maps as I passed under streetlights.

As someone who doesn’t have to drive in London—and felt oppressed by driving when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, the Boston area, and the Bay area—this technology made me feel calm, relaxed, and confident. Kind of the same way the Internet makes me feel confident about finding train times, looking up words, or getting in touch with people.

I’m also excited about the added value of other services that you can get on the more sophisticated systems. It would have been great if the thing could have told me where the nearest gas station was, the most well-reviewed diner on the next hour of my route, or the next decent coffee shop. I could almost conceive of driving becoming a pleasure. Except for one thing. I’ve yet to hear of a satnav system that could guide you to an open parking space.

Photo: My travelling companion in September was a little java-based satnav system that ran on a mobile phone. Photocredit: Mikal from Canberrra. http://www.stillhq.com/

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.