April 25, 2014 03:50 UTC

Science & Technology

Driving With GPS Can Be Difficult to Navigate

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A GPS unit inside a tractor on a farm in Tallula, IllinoisA GPS unit inside a tractor on a farm in Tallula, Illinois
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A GPS unit inside a tractor on a farm in Tallula, Illinois
A GPS unit inside a tractor on a farm in Tallula, Illinois

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This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

Global Positioning Systems are now a part of everyday driving in many countries. These satellite-based systems provide turn-by-turn directions to help people get to where they want to go. But, they can also cause a lot of problems, send you to the wrong place or leave you completely lost. Many times, the driver is to blame. Sometimes a GPS error is responsible. Most often, says Barry Brown, it is a combination of the two.

Barry Brown is with the Mobile Life Centre in Stockholm, Sweden. The center studies human-computer interaction, or HCI, especially communications involving wireless devices.

We spoke to Mr. Brown by Skype. He told us about an incident involving a friend who had flown to an airport in the eastern United States. There he borrowed a GPS-equipped car to use during his stay.

BARRY BROWN: “And they just plugged in an address and then set off to their destination. And, then it wasn’t until they were driving for thirty minutes until they realized they actually put in a destination back on the West Coast where they lived. They actually put their home address in. So again, the GPS is kind of 'garbage in garbage out'.”

Mister Brown says this is a common human error. But, he says, what makes the problem worse has to do with some of the shortcomings, or failures, of GPS equipment.

BARRY BROWN: “One problem with a lot of the GPS units is they have a very small screen and they just tell you the next turn. Because they just give you the next turn, sometimes that means that it is not really giving you the overview that you would need to know that it’s going to the wrong place.”

Barry Brown formerly served as a professor with the University of California, San Diego. While there, he worked on a project with Eric Laurier from the University of Edinburgh. The two men studied the effects of GPS devices on driving by placing cameras in people’s cars. They wrote a paper based on their research. It is called “The Normal, Natural Troubles of Driving with GPS.”

BARRY BROWN: “One of the things that struck us, perhaps the most important thing was that you have to know what you’re doing when you use a GPS. There are these new skills that people have developed. There are these new competencies that you need to have to be able to use a GPS because they sometimes go wrong.” 

Barry Brown says this goes against a common belief that GPS systems are for passive drivers who lack navigational skills. 

“The Normal, Natural Troubles of Driving With GPS” lists several areas where GPS systems can cause confusion for drivers. These include maps that are outdated, incorrect or difficult to understand. They also include timing issues related to when GPS commands are given.

Barry Brown says to make GPS systems better we need a better understanding of how drivers, passengers and GPS systems work together. 

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. I'm Steve Ember.
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by: Osvaldo Lovato from: Brazil
09/24/2012 12:19 PM
Depending on the GPS configuration, the system will lead to certain paths that can not be the better and this can be a problem. Because of that, it's important to know well the equipament before to use to.


by: Maurizio from: Italy
09/12/2012 2:23 PM
Despite GPS with great software and detailed database are able to do wonderful things, is important to know the basis of the system and know how to use it to avoid problems that sometime can be dangerous.
For example poor coverage due to nearby obstacles, or for security reasons can cause wrong information. But many other can be causes for malfunction of the system like for other devices. My suggest is to touch the GPS device as little as possible while driving (the same is to do for the cell phone) and to use it just to have confirmation that navigation made with your brain with the help of the map and road signs is correct. GPS is a great worldwide guide for aviators, sailors, earth navigators in general but it is used also for surveying applications and so on..


by: Denis from: Russia
09/12/2012 4:43 AM
It was very funny to read this article. Some friend set off wrong address and he blames GPS! Strange. GPS is just a tool and, of course, users should know how to use it. "Small screen". Buy GPS with big screen. "Few information from GPS". Buy GPS software what you need. There are much gps software.


by: Tony from: Thailand
09/12/2012 1:21 AM
In the US, I flew a private plane and had Loran or GPS most of the time. One of the first things you learn is never to rely only on one navigation device. Always have another to cross-check; a chart when flying and a map when driving. Always question the GPS-does where it is sending me make sense?

That said, I have seen places that I never would have seen if not for the GPS. Many times I will randomly drive to see what's there, knowing that I can return to a known spot with the GPS.

Bottom line is use a GPS, but don't let it become a substitute for your brain and common sense.



by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
09/10/2012 5:26 AM
I comletely agree with this story. After the installation of a GPS navigattion system in my car, I don't have needed to learn the route by heart at all. Totally depending on the GPS, I have been lost driving around the same route,too. I could not make sure which way is even north or south. I am afraid I become more dull, too much depending on the GPS. In IT age, we come to be able to handle intelligence without learnig by heart but only with the information where the intelligence is stored. This situation seems very risky to lead misconduction of HCI and human errors.


by: Ismael from: Brazil
09/09/2012 10:00 PM
In many parts of the world, like in Brazil, the GPS systems do not work so well and, deppending where you are and you go, this system can not help people to find the correst direction. I guess GPS system should be updated to improve its usability.

In Response

by: Slavek from: Poland
09/12/2012 9:22 AM
The navigation system requires the visibility to the satellites. Therefore it does not work good in such places as e.g. urban canyons or under trees. It doesn't matter if it is in Brazil or another country.

In Response

by: ismael from: Brazil
09/12/2012 9:16 PM
I agree with you that GPS system requires the visibility of satellites to work, but in Brazil this system doesn't work so well because the basemap doesn't have the same quality than countries located in the north hemisphere. I guess the basemap is the key to take a good navigation.