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Before GPS became commonplace, getting to unfamiliar destinations was often a cumbersome task: Between figuring out maps and deciphering a friend’s written directions, wrong turns and missed exits were common pitfalls.
Thanks to apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze, as well as car-mounted options like TomTom, getting from point A to point B is much easier today. These apps and devices don’t just help us find our intended locations, either: They help us avoid traffic and construction, they try to find the quickest route for us, and they even locate nearby gas stations and dining options.
But no electronic navigation system is perfect, and sometimes the convenience of GPS technology is imperiled by its flaws. Occasional technical hiccups can take us well out of our way to our intended destination. In some cases, these errors just don’t result in making us late—they can also put us in danger.
Let’s discuss the pluses and minuses of GPS systems and some of the most egregious, mind-boggling, and near-fatal errors they have caused.
Google Maps is leading tourists away from Mount Rushmore.
With larger-than-life depictions of some of our greatest presidents carved into the Black Hills mountain range of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic tourist attractions in the United States, .
While one would think such a place would be visible from a great distance, it’s apparently not easy to find, as Google Maps has made abundantly clear—it keeps sending visitors to the wrong address.
In fact, many of those who type in that destination on Google Maps are sent 12 miles out of their way, ending up at Storm Mountain Center, a 264-acre Methodist campsite. What accounts for this error on Google Maps’ end?
“It seems to think one of the hills nearby is Mount Rushmore,” said Ashley Wilsey, guest services manager for the Storm Mountain Center, in an interview with Today. So if a driver makes the simple mistake of selecting “Mt. Rushmore, SD” instead of “Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota” they’re sent off course.
Wilsey has even put up a sign redirecting visitors to their proper destination, while the website for Mt. Rushmore provides in-depth instructions to make sure visitors program their GPS systems properly.
“Unfortunately, the postal street address (13000 Highway 244, Keystone, South Dakota) for Mount Rushmore National Memorial does not register in many navigation systems,” the website reads. They recommend entering “Keystone, SD 57751,” which is the closest town to the memorial, entering “Mt Rushmore National Memorial” into the Points of Interest setting, or entering the latitude/longitude coordinates.
Seshu Kiran, engineer and CEO of UAV technology company XAir, says errors like these are common in rural areas, because if you “drive or walk into an area of no-signal, you have lost all contextual information, plus details on the maps. Even with cached maps, it’s not convenient when you are in a new place.”
He adds that in these instances, car-mounted navigation systems (like Garmin or TomTom) are more reliable than those installed on smartphones: “The difference is like a swiss-army knife and a butcher’s knife,” because the former “are optimized for just one task: navigation.”
And he’s not alone in this opinion—a 2017 piece in the New York Times says such devices are better suited than smart phone GPS systems for longer trips because they “don’t rely on a data connection to plot a route. They have the map data stored inside.”
Google Maps reportedly had to do with the destruction of a woman’s home.
It’s easy to get focused on how a driver winds up in the wrong place because of faulty navigation technology. Less discussed is how this can result in problems that go far beyond that initial mishap.
Take Lindsay Diaz, a Texas homeowner who came home to a demolished house. Why did that happen, you may ask? Because Billy L. Nabors Demolition made a mistake.
You see, the demolition company was supposed to demolish a home on 7601 Cousteau Drive. Instead, Google Maps sent them to 7601 Calypso Drive, destroying Diaz’s duplex in the process.
This added insult to injury for Diaz, as her home had only recently been damaged by a tornado—hours before, she’d just determined she could fix the home. Google made a meek mea culpa, with a spokesperson saying “Both addresses were shown as being in the same location on Google Maps… the issue was fixed as soon as it was brought to our attention.”
Obviously, this was of little solace to Diaz, who vented to a local news outlet: “How do you make a mistake like this? …They really wrecked my life.” This was exacerbated when the demolition company washed their hands of responsibility, with their CEO reportedly telling WFAA that “it’s not a big deal.”
As of this writing, Diaz is still involved in a lawsuit with a demolition crew.
GPS took a driver into the wrong country.
While everyone that has used a GPS system has been sent to the occasional wrong stop, Sabine Moreau may take the record for the most wrong. Not only did her navigation system fail her in leading her to her intended stop, it sent her all the way to another country.
It sounds like the premise for a comedy film, but it’s true. Moreau went to pick up her friend from a train stop in Hainault Erquelinnes, Brussels, and what should have been a 90-mile jaunt wound up being up an 810-mile journey.
Moreau followed her GPS without a second thought. It took her all the way to Croatia, passing through both Germany and Austria in the process.
Despite refueling twice and pulling to the side of the road for a nap, she never once questioned if her navigation system was leading her astray until the Croatian road signs finally tipped her off something might be amiss.
Her explanation for sticking with the faulty GPS directions for such a long time? “I admit it’s a little weird, but I was distracted,” she told a local newspaper.
One time, Google Street View revealed a bit too much.
When a Montreal woman looked up her home with Google Maps back in 2011, she was mortified. The reason? Because it showed more of her than she would have liked. The Google Street View photo of her home showed her sitting on her front steps with a partially exposed breast “after the top edge of her tank top had drooped too far.”
Although Google had blurred out her face, it did little to blur out anything else, including her address and license plate, which made her concerned for her safety. When her complaints fell on deaf ears, she took action.
In 2011, she sued the company on grounds of violating her privacy. While she didn’t get her desired amount, she won her case, with the court stating that Google didn’t sufficiently mask her identity. But the debate over how the company stores our private data rages on.
Caleb Nieri, a photogrammetrist, cartographer, and project manager for Aerial Data Service, says, “Google’s Street View has been a helpful tool for the kind of mapping we do, which is very detail-oriented collection of both terrain elevations and planimetric features on the ground.” Still, he’s concerned about its impact on privacy.
“GPS tacked on to fairly detailed imagery has made it all too easy to peer into someone’s life, albeit a dated version of said life,” he says. “With the technological curve we are on, there will be advancements in real-time imagery and extremely detailed GPS positioning. Things will only get less private.”
GPS almost sent a driver off a cliff.
Taking the scenic route took on a whole (and nearly fatal) new meaning for Robert Jones while driving through the countryside of Yorkshire, England.
Trusting that his GPS was sending him down the right road (despite it becoming increasingly narrow and rough), he became alarmed when his car busted through a wire fence—revealing he was perilously close to falling off a 100 foot drop.
“I guess I’m lucky the car didn’t slip all the way over the edge. You don’t expect to be taken nearly over a cliff,” he told the Daily Mail, adding, “It has been a bit of a nightmare.” While he escaped injury, he had to wait nine hours for a recovery service to remove his BMW safely.
He turned out to be another motorist plagued by “black spots,” locations not easily identifiable by GPS technology, which are believed to have led to an uptick of accidents.
There was literally an episode of The Office where Michael Scott’s GPS took him to a lake and he drove in. 🤦🏻♀️ pic.twitter.com/laHCMtt3aj
— Dawn Kubie (@JulyJane) January 25, 2018
Jones, a delivery driver, also stated how much he relied on his GPS, saying he “couldn’t do without it for my job.” But the technology cost him, as he was “summonsed to court for driving without care and attention.”
Jones’ near fatal mistake and the others we’ve highlighted on this list raise the question…are we over-reliant on GPS?
Nieri says our blind faith in navigation systems can often lead to problems like these, which has made him more averse to using them himself: “In my personal day-to-day, I rarely depend on GPS. I use it, sure, but I’m the age where I like to see the destination and determine my own route. I think that’s a good rule for everyone: Don’t blindly follow the device, just let it help.”
In fact, our over-dependence on navigational systems can have a negative impact on our cognitive abilities, according to a 2010 McGill University study, which revealed that it reduces the function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps with memory and navigation.
The study states that drivers who didn’t rely on GPS (instead using their spatial skills to recognize landmarks and street signs) did better on a standardized test that can help diagnose cognitive impairment.
We live in a world where Lyft and uber drivers will blindly follow the GPS instead of reading road signs and interpreting changes due to construction
— LOONEY (@KraigLooney) February 24, 2018
This could prove crucial, given the hippocampus is one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot, who helped conduct the study, suggested that using our spatial memory skills on a regular basis may actually help ward off cognitive impairment, and recommends cutting back on relying on navigation systems when possible.
The Upside to Following Directions
While the perils of over-reliance on GPS are clear, there are obviously upsides to the technology that make it worth the risks that we’ve discussed.
Beyond the obvious perks of getting to your destination with minimal hassle, there are other benefits. GPS systems used in fitness trackers can monitor your daily exercise routine, making sure you meet your goals. For businesses, GPS has streamlined delivery and shipping. It has certainly improved the drive times for public transportation, taxis, and rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.
For all the ways it can impact our privacy, it can also provide extra security, from parents wishing to keep tabs on their children to law enforcement tracking both suspects and victims. And in the case of an emergency, they can point you towards the closest hospital in your area.
Nieri adds that the technology will come in handy once self-driving cars are the norm: “More accurate GPS will lead to the ability to have better autonomous vehicles with less room for human error.”
Just as with anything else, moderation is key. While GPS is a useful tool, there is always a potential for error. So on drives long and short, feel free to turn on your GPS, but remember to turn on your eyes, too. If your navigation system is leading you astray, don’t be afraid to flex that hippocampus.