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Is GPS confusing? You may well be the cause

india Updated: Sep 03, 2012 01:00 IST
Randal Stross

The turn-by-turn instructions of GPS-based navigation systems, ingenious though they may be, can’t save us from ourselves.

Consider the experience of a man from San Diego who flew to the East Coast of US, and picked up a GPS-equipped rental car at the airport. After 20 minutes, he sensed he was headed in the wrong direction: he had unthinkingly entered his home address as destination!

“The navigation system had dutifully set a route back to his home in San Diego, 3,000 miles away,” said Barry Brown, co-director of the Mobile Life Centre, based in Stockholm. The incident happened to a friend of his.

Brown is co-author of a recent paper titled “The Normal Natural Troubles of Driving With GPS.” The paper illuminates a drawback of GPS technology: that it is designed for docile drivers whose navigational skills have atrophied.

After analysing their subjects, the researchers constructed a typology of navigation “troubles,” including destination, route, sensing of the car’s location and timing of a given turn instruction.

Human error, it turned out, was responsible for many of the problems. The driver nonetheless blamed the object that is most handy: “These GPS things — it’s really confusing.”

According to TomTom, a leading manufacturer of navigation devices, about 25% of all cars in the US and Europe now have GPS devices. These provide drivers with copious information in visual form, in addition to audible instructions. But humans can take in only so much information at one go. In fact, research by a group led by Andrew L. Kun, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Hampshire, found that voice instructions without the screen may actually be safer.

“Voice-only instructions delivered subjects to their destinations, and you could argue that they drove better because they looked at the road more,” Kun said. “Yet a majority preferred having a navigation screen — they felt anxious without it.”

So is that what a navigation device is? A sort of driver pacifier? The jury is still out. The New York Times