May 09, 2004

The oddities of satellite navigation systems

Jackie D | Transport General

A couple of years ago, I drove to the South of France with my friends. We borrowed my friend's father's BMW estate, so that we could bring back as many crates of wine as possible. But after the first twelve hours of driving and map reading, at least one of us (that would be me) was thinking that the wine may not have made such an ordeal worthwhile.

One of those friends, soon after we returned from France, bought a Mercedes CLK with satellite navigation, and has since purchased a Mini Cooper (for himself) and a BMW (for his wife-type-partner), all with sat nav. The idea is that we'll be able to take one or more of these cars to France with us and fill them with booze, without the hassle of maps and the spats they can cause. An expensive solution to a minor problem, perhaps, but one I approve of wholeheartedly. After using satellite navigation to find several potentially troublesome addresses, I have become a major fan of the technology, and would not dream of driving a car without it.

But these sat nav systems are not without their bugs.

One day last month, I was visiting with someone who has satellite navigation in his BMW. We decided to go for lunch at a restaurant near Colchester, in the village of Great Tey. But we couldn't find Great Tey in the sat nav directory no matter how hard we looked. And then finally, there it was -- under Tey Great. "That's a bit cheeky," the car's owner commented.

A couple of weeks ago, driving around central London in the same car, we were trying to find a certain restaurant. But at almost every turn, the sat nav system directed us to drive the wrong way down one-way streets, or to take avenues that were closed due to road works. The driver explained to me that there were updates to the sat nav software that you could get, but as he'd only had the car a few months, he hadn't yet bothered to do so. That explained that, then.

Fast forward to this week: same car, same car owner, in deepest Fingringhoe. After a couple of drinks in a country pub, we got in the car and entered our desired destination into the sat nav system. The system advised us to make a U-turn.

We were still in the car park.

It also indicated that we were 7.3 miles from our destination. Once we'd pulled out of the car park, it told us that we were 9.6 miles from our destination. Half a mile up the road, it sent us down what appeared to be a mud track for a quarter of a mile, then spit us back out onto the road on which we'd originally been driving.

Somehow, I don't think that my hypothesis -- that the car is possessed, a British Christine -- quite hits the nail on the head. I've looked on Google for information on sat nav bugs, and have come up quite emptyhanded. While I'd love to take this as an indication that the car is evil, I suspect there is more to it than that. Any suggestions gratefully received in the comments.

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Comments

1) While you're in the car park, you're off the system, which may tell you to do things like make a u-turn.

2) When you first put in the directions, the system initially gives you a distance which is shorter than the route still being calculated.

3) The system is plus or minus 50', and it will sometimes have difficulty deciding what road you are on. There are also sometimes errors in the coordinate information on the CD.

As your friend said, the CDs are updated every year. Teams of checkers drive up and down road after road looking for errors.

Posted by John Massengale on May 9, 2004

Well, that answers that! I'm very intrigued with the idea of these people whose job it is to drive around, looking for errors in the system -- sheer madness. Someone should write a story about them.

Posted by Jackie D on May 9, 2004

I use a Garmin Street Pilot on the Bike. This is updated via the computer. I wouldn't be without it. There are some glitches of course. If you tell it to take the shortest route from A to B; the shortest route is what you get - even if it means a dirt track. That apart, for navigating in France with the strange French signposting, it's a godsend.

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 9, 2004

I'd imagine there can also be variations depending on what mapping providers they use. I haven't used sat. navigation in cars, but I know that certain WWW map direction services have a problem with the road my work is on. It will tell you to go towards it and turn right or left, despite the fact that the cross street is about 40 feet above your head.

Posted by Highway on May 9, 2004

OK, so there are glitches, but heck there were glitches in the early days of motoring itself: total unreliability for a start. Oh, and police speed traps.

But think of the future. You will punch in your destination, it will give you a choice of routes and a choice of prices depending on route and time of day. It will advise you on speed and the best approach to the bend. Oh and it will even tell you where to park.

We'll need privately-owned roads, of course.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on May 9, 2004

As glitches go, these are quite fun. Especially the time driving round London, and finding that road works and streets that had been recently made one-way were keeping us from our destination at literally every turn. It became something of a joke, and the beauty of it was, the sat nav would recalculate a new route for you every time you ignored its initial advice. Driving without it would seem positively quaint to me now.

And I want everyone to get it in their cars, just because I hate giving directions to people or dealing with timid "But I don't know where I'm going, I've never driven outside my own town before" types.

Posted by Jackie D on May 9, 2004

I enjoy map reading and finding new routes ad hoc.

I can navigate by the sun and my watch so what do I need a satellite controlled device for?

If ever there's the faintest whiff of a tailback I reach for my map and dive off at the next exit to embarked on a voyage of discovery.

I've had great drives that I hadn't expect to go on; diagonally from Stonehenge to Hitchin via Thame, Tring and Dunstable; diagonally from near Dartford to Bognor via Tunbridge Wells and Lewes; Hitchin to Cornwall via Aylesbury, Oxford and Stroud; Maastrict to Stavelot via, er, Germany. Spontaneity! Great fun.

Posted by Mark Holland on May 9, 2004

"Spontaneity! Great fun."

Don't tell me -- you're one of those "enjoy the journey" types. (Just kidding. I do see your point, but if you're an impatient person like me, you don't get spontaneous when you're on a serious mission. It's one thing to be spontaneous on a leisurely Sunday drive or when my mission is to be spontaneous, but not when I'm trying to get to B for a 19.30 booking or to Bordeaux before dark.)

Also, I don't think females -- in general -- have map-reading minds. Or at least this one doesn't.

Posted by Jackie D on May 9, 2004

I don't operate in the same circles as you Jackie, I don't have 19:30 bookings or have to be in Bordeaux by dark.

I enjoy driving and try to make the trip fun, my idea of a leisurely drive possibly differs from yours but I better not incriminate myself...

Did you see tonight's Top Gear? Clarkson challenged his colleages to a race from their studio near Cranleigh to Monte Carlo. They went by train and he went by car and beat them. That sounds like my sort of leisurely drive!

Posted by Mark Holland on May 9, 2004

Mark, it's hardly elitist of me to make dinner reservations or to go to France on holiday is it? I hope not...

As for Top Gear, I saw that, and was going to blog about it (beginner's enthusiasm, I guess). It really was excellent viewing.

Posted by Jackie D on May 10, 2004

Mark, I ride a motorcycle because I enjoy the journey. I also like to plan routes and pour over maps - but there it stops. Coming out of Cognac to a junction that has no signposts doesn't tell you where you are on the map - neither does the sun nor my watch (I don't carry a sextant). A satnav does. It makes navigation a pleasure and the ride just a little less stressful when faced with signposting that is at best, unhelpful. Also, the voice activation in the helmet headset means I can concentrate on where I'm going and the road layout and not have to look at the screen. Technology really is wonderful - if it wasn't I'd be riding a single cylinder clutch less device instead of a modern tourer ;-)

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

As a bicyclist I'm sceptical of many signposts near main roads anyway. Would you know you can ride from Exeter to Launceston on the whole length of the quiet and pleasant old A30 without once riding along the horrible dual carriage-way? The signs wouldn't tell you that

It wouldn't matter in a car or on a motorbike, apart from the scenery, but it makes a huge difference on a bicycle.

Also a navigator ought to be able recognise landmarks from his map to locate his position.

If it's dark though and you can't see which side of the tree the moss is growing, the voice in the headset suddenly sounds a good idea.

Posted by Mark Holland on May 10, 2004

Mark, I ride a bicycle too - so yes, I'm aware of some of the traffic-free cycle routes available. We have plenty around Bristol.

As for getting lost, it all depends on the map as to what landmarks are available to use. Coming out of Cognac that day I knew I was on the wrong road, but there was nothing on the map to give me any indication as to which road I was on. That was when I decided to buy a SatNav. Navigation is all the more enjoyable for it.

Signposts generally point you the way the road planners want you to go - the old N16 in Portugal is a classic example of this. They want you to follow the new IP5 motorway....yeuch.

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

An afterthought...

Map reading on a motorcycle can be incredibly awkward. There are a number of options. One of the favoured is to tape a map (sometimes with a written route) to the tank. Believe me, trying to read a map that is secured to the tank while moving is a quick way to lose control. Another is to co-opt the pillion. This usually leads to some tension after a couple of wrong turnings. So you're left with finding somewhere to pull over, fish around for wherever it was you stowed the map, check your route, try to remember the next few turnings and stow it back again.

The satnav sits comfortably in my line of vision below the speedo, can be easily read and the voice prompts mean I don't have to. Funny thing, though, I still take my yellow Michelin maps.

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

Map reading on a motorcycle can be incredibly awkward. There are a number of options. One of the favoured is to tape a map (sometimes with a written route) to the tank. Believe me, trying to read a map that is secured to the tank while moving is a quick way to lose control.

Careful, Mark E -- soon the government will want to make not only crash helmets a lawful requirement, but sat nav too...

Posted by Jackie D on May 10, 2004

With a heads-up display no doubt?

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

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