A blog for odd things and odd thoughts.

Sat Nav Lust

This post was found languishing in my drafts folder from about January. I hope the facts haven’t changed too much from then.

My sense of direction is all but non-existent, so I have wanted a working Satellite Navigation system for my car for years.

I used one years ago in a rental car, many years ago and I wasn’t over-awed with it.

Partly, it was quibbles with the map data:

An example was the time I was cruising along Riverside Drive towards the centre of Brisbane. It urged me to turn left. I declined. I had driven on Riverside Drive many dozens of times, and I knew it was the best way to the city. It responded by having a tantrum, and declaring it didn’t know where I was – I was off of its map! A minute later it discovered it knew where I was again! I was on Riverside Drive, and it suggested I keep travelling along it if I still wanted to get to the city after my cross-country adventure.

Partly, it was quibbles with the software:

An example was how long it took to learn to translate “Take the third exit from the traffic circle” to mean “Turn right at the roundabout”. Another example was whenever it decided that I had failed to follow instructions, it would recalculate the route without any indication, and just start given competing directions. I was still trying to turn right like it told me, and it would suddenly bark at me to turn left.

In the last year, Sat Nav systems seem to have hit a critical point where they are becoming cheaper and better at an incredible rate. Since Chris at BrainSnorkel bought (and highly rated) a TomTom, my feelings of jealousy and raw gadget lust have been at a dangerously high level – almost at that point where I would go and buy an expensive toy I don’t really need.

I tried to talk myself out of it, to save myself some money. “If I can hold off for another year, I will get a much better system for a lower price. So here’s my compromise: My next car… I will install a nice sat nav system in my next car.” That was a satisfactory compromise, that worked very well for a few hours, until I found myself thinking “So! It looks like it is about time for a new car, eh?” So much for saving me money.

My recent adventures in the USA with the Hertz Neverlost system have done more to persuade me to wait a little bit longer than all my self-argument.

Again, the issue is partly the map data:

Being told to turn right on a freeway where there is no intersection – apart, of course, from a flyover 20 feet above my head – is stressful. Realising that, after I miss Futurama-style flying-right-turn, its re-routing is just taking me back to the same point to try again is even more stressful. Add pouring rain and heavy traffic and you can probably guess the level of invective I shared with it.

Sometime freeway sections would be filled with unnecessary instructions to not take an exit. Effectively, “in 2 miles, do nothing… in 1.1. miles, do nothing… in 0.5 miles, do nothing…. prepare to do nothing… ding!” Other times, it would just remain shtum.

Again the issue is partly quibbles with the software.

I found some of the verbal directions it gave in complex intersections to be positively distracting. To get to my hotel, it would urge me to “stick to the left”, which really meant “remain in the right-hand lane, or else you will end up on a freeway entrance, shooting past your hotel at 65 miles per hour”.

It was fascinated with U-turns, and I don’t think they were given a high enough weight to represent their cost in the routing algorithm. I once looked in fascination as it pushed me to join a highway early, and then do a U-turn to head in the right direction, rather than continue a block down a side road, and join the highway in the correct direction.

Combine this with the previous issue, and you may find yourself in the dilemma I faced! An unclear set of instructions put me in the wrong lane of a freeway exit, so I missed my turn-off onto a service road, just prior to the entrance of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport car-park. The system was quick thinking, and recommended a U-turn, before the impending toll-gates. I just needed to immediately cross twelve lanes of traffic to do so. I ended up having to go through the toll, and rely on the exit booth giving me a freebie. They were nice the first time it happened. They were even nice the second time I fell for the same bad instructions, and it happened again. The third time it happened, I was ready and the road traffic was quiet enough to actually make it across all those lanes in time. Maybe if I did it a fourth time, I would have ignored the machine and actually made the right exit in the first place!

When you enter an address it offers three choices of routing algorithms: fastest, most use of freeways, least use of freeways. Huh? What does “most use of freeways” mean? That it will take me on a tour of the entire USA? Perhaps the emphasis is meant to be on “free”, i.e. toll-free? I would have said “Fastest, Cheapest or Avoid High Speeds.”

The “+” and “-” buttons adjust the zoom levels. Guess which one increases magnification. Guess again.

In one of the cars I drove, starting the engine would reset the Sat Nav system, which was frustrating if you wanted to program the system before you set out.

In conclusion, I found that I got lost about as frequently with the NeverLost system as I do with a paper map. The advantage was that it generally took me less time to get back on course once I was lost.

An unmentioned disadvantage was that my sense of the geography of the city remained even more rudimentary than it normally would be. After over a week in one hotel, I still couldn’t tell you which compass direction it was from downtown.
You may want to interject that the NeverLost technology is now a few years old, and modern systems are already better. Please don’t tell my subconscious that. I don’t really need a new car!


  1. As with most types of software, attention to detail makes all the difference to real-world usability. And I wouldn’t necessarily infer that all GPS software is bad based on one implementation…

    I succumbed to partially-Brainsnorkel-induced gearlust and bought a GPS phone recently, the Nokia 6110 Navigator. Review forthcoming obviously, but I don’t think it will spoil the surprise to say that the achilles heel of the Nokia (which uses third-party Route 66 software) is the quality of the maps. They lack crucial information about when right-hand turns are and not allowed. Needless to say this makes the navigation almost useless in some parts of Sydney.

    However I still maintain that the real problem is the lack of a feedback loop to harness the wisdom of the (now HDSPA connected) crowds.

  2. I have made that U turn over 12 lanes in front of the tollbooths at the DFW Airport. Not having any US currency and being too tired to put up with being beeped for holding up traffic is surprisingly motivating.

    Hertz Neverlost? Sure you’re Never Lost, but you’re often sub-optimally located.

    I’ve been using the corporate Garmin GPS while in the US, and the map data is sooo much better than the Sensis-sourced map data Australian GPS units all seem to work from.

    Alastair – can you dig up the source of map data for your review?

  3. I’ve been using the Garmin GPS in Australia – and the only thing I wish I had was a way of providing local knowledge.

    For instance, I know that Parramatta Rd should be avoided at all costs, but have yet to work out a way of convincing Garmin it should know that too. I also know that certain roads are fantastic some times of the day, but absolutely suck at others – now there’s some inovation waiting to happen. It’s funny how in some places going an extra 10-20kms in the wrong direction can get you there much much faster..

    Last time I was in the US I had the Avis equivalent of Never Lost – it used a centralized server for doing the map calculations (i.e. not done on the what looked like a GPS + WAP enabled cell-phone). Apart from it “shouting” the directions at me, it was very good. I never once felt that I could do a much better job without a map or just google mapping it.

  4. Chris: The Route66 software on the 6110N uses Navteq maps. And apparently they do have a feedback loop. Although it’s unclear to me how these map updates get incorporated – and whether you have to pay for the next release which incorporates your contribution.

  5. I’ve used the Hertz NeverLost system around the SF South Bay area and been happy enough that I never wanted to look at a map. Perhaps the data is better down there. As soon as we can organise a NeverLost driveoff between Dallas and South Bay, we’ll know.

    BTW, ‘+’ means “look at more stuff” and ‘-’ means “look at less stuff”.

  6. I had a think about the dynamic updating of in-car navigation information a while back actually, and I really think it will happen when digital radio takes off. All the stations have to do is take their traffic reports, turn them into geo-located “costs” for the planning algorithm, and have some means of removing them again later (say after an estimate of how long the delay is likely to last). Then attach that stream of information to the broadcast and whenver you listen to that radio station, your SatNav can pick up the info and adjust itself accordingly.

    Hell, by the time I finish my PhD it’ll probably be tenable – I should start a company and just do it!

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