Finding your way is easier than nav systems tell us

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Last fall I was whining about in-car infotainment systems working poorly — Consumer Reports’ survey of 1.1 million car buyers’ No. 1 complaint — and I blamed the culture of engineering.

My specific beef was that I could never figure out why navigation systems don’t work very well. I always thought it was because the people who design them must not go anywhere they’ve never been before.

Recently, my daughter and a friend wound up in Akron, Ohio, about 200 miles from Metro Detroit. They didn’t have enough money for gas to get back home, and had not planned the spontaneous trip very well (Dads teach risk-taking and boundaries; moms teach safety, right?).

I wired her some cash, and gave her directions to return without taking the Ohio Turnpike to save money. She was not far from U.S. 20, which I explained was a scenic two-lane that passes through cute little towns, and would give them an enjoyable trip home. My thinking was that it was simple to go west on U.S. 20, and catch U.S. 23 north to Michigan. But they couldn’t do it. They ended up following the navigation system’s instructions onto the Interstate 80/90 toll road. And ran out of money a second time.

All navigation systems I’ve seen have an option to find an alternate route to keep a user off tollways, yet at their level of low confidence, my daughter and her friend didn’t want to chance scrolling through menu pages, potentially getting lost even farther from home. They didn’t trust the navigation system, but didn’t know how to find their way home without it.

When they arrived I asked if they had stopped to look at a map. My daughter explained that none of her 20-year-old peers knew how to read a map. I asked if she knew how highway signs and mile markers can lead her home. She said they confused her, but never thought about it because she uses a navigation system to get around.

In his 2014 book “You Are Here,” author Hiawatha Bray explains that the Global Positioning System navigation systems use is one of the greatest achievements in all of human history. But he notes that humans have been sailing around the world for thousands of years, using simple logic to figure out where they are.

Greek mathematician Eratosthenes figured out the circumference of the Earth using carefully placed sticks before 200 BCE. The magnetic compass wasn’t invented until about a thousand years ago.

In the second half of the 18th century, the family of Italian Giovanni Cassini used geodetic triangulation to create detailed maps of France, which saved a lot of time walking and pacing to determine distance. None of these folks needed electronic satellites. And they knew where they were.

Here in the U.S., highway numbering signs follow an ingenious plan with federal two-lane highways rising in number from north to south, so U.S. 2 is way up in the Upper Peninsula, while U.S. 90 is down in Texas.

The limited-access Interstate throughway system is the opposite, with I-10 down south, and I-94 up here in Michigan. For both systems, even numbered roads go east-west, while odd numbers are for north-south stretches. On the interstates, mile markers start at zero on the west edges of each state. Using this system, you may not be able to find Pizza Louie’s address, but you pretty much know where you are in the country, and which way to head to get home.

I’ve been driving on long trips since before GPS satellites, and driving cross-country without maps or navigation systems has become second nature. I look at the U.S. as someplace where you cannot get lost, by using only road signs to navigate. But when I think about my daughter using a navigation system, in a car or on her phone, I realize she’s always lost. She has no mind’s image of where she is on a map, only landmark recognition. She does not trust road signs and is uncomfortable not using GPS-based navigation systems.

I tend not to use a navigation system in any car because I can always choose a better route. My son agrees with me, even though he says I’m being arrogant (true). We have concluded that the best navigation system would give us maybe 100 choices of routes from our location to our destination at any moment.

Most current navigation systems give you three. Navigation systems merely promise to get you to a destination; they do not promise the best route. Saving a mile is not the most efficient trip when it exposes you to risk and stress. Because of this, I call navigation systems simply “direction lists.” There is no real navigating going on. Instead, drivers are forced to follow a set path. How many times has a navigation system spoken the command “Make a legal U turn?”

When you have no concept of where you are, you have no idea whether a navigation system works well or not. My son seems to know where he is on the planet, and knows that automotive navigation systems are not very good. But being a member of the millennial generation who grew up with GPS, he’s not bothered by poorly working systems. He tells me just to get used to it.

Author Bray said in a recent interview that fantastic improvements are being applied to maps of the entire Earth at a rapid pace: Google Maps and Open Street Maps have tens of thousands of people with smartphones adding refinements and corrections every day. It’s a shame none of this is yet available on our car’s navigation systems.