Your navigation system is the co-pilot, not the pilot

Just in case you might be confused, when you install a GPS or your car comes with navigation computer you are not relieved of your duties behind the wheel. Consider what happened to the people highlighted in a recent story by Reuters:

In October a 53-year-old German, obeying his satnav’s command “Turn right now!” jerked the wheel over and crashed into a roadside toilet hut 30 metres (yards) before the crossing he was meant to take, causing 2,000 euros ($2,600) damage.

You just can’t blame the navigation system for that one. But I guess I should still take back some of what I said about the California windshield-mount prohibition (Vehicle Code 26708) — navigation systems, regardless of their position, may in fact increase risks.

Clearly there are some among us who trust computerized navigation more than they should, and probably a lot more than a real person. How do you rate your passenger’s map knowledge and capabilities compared to a colorful little box with a logo on it programmed by someone you will never see or meet? I mean if this German guy’s wife was sitting next to him and saying “turn right now” what do you think he would have done?

Frankly I’ve had some experiences that suggest the navigation systems are often just guessing at the right path when they are afraid to admit they have no idea where to go. Just the other night I watched a Garmin Nuvi 360 put itself into an infinite loop…”turn left onto Frontage, now turn left and proceed to University, turn left onto Frontage”. We had to turn the poor thing off before it overheated or its feelings were hurt by the passengers laughing and yelling obscenities. I shudder to think what would have happened if it actually did control the wheel. I guess that’s why aircraft still have human pilots on board, sitting next to the big manual override switch.

And then there are those folks who do try and blame the navigation system for their own lapses in judgment. Again from the Reuters story:

A few weeks earlier, an 80-year-old motorist also followed his satnav instead of common sense and ignored a “closed for construction” sign on a Hamburg motorway. He hit a pile of sand at high speed but was not hurt.

“I just thought the navigation system knew a shortcut,” Volker Heinemann was quoted as telling a local newspaper. His car had to be towed away.

Maybe Volker’s navigation system was just tired of his driving and wanted a divorce. Reuters tries to make the case that people become “dumber” as they trust things more:

Experts say that as cars get smarter, some people seem to get dumber, and the problem increases as more vehicles are equipped with the devices.


“If a traffic light is red it’s obvious you have to stop even if the satnav says ‘drive straight on’,” he said. “People who drive into rivers and then blame their satnav are just too humiliated to accept blame themselves.”

One German did drive his car into the Havel River near Berlin on a foggy Christmas Day. He said his satnav had made a ferry crossing look like a bridge.

I don’t agree that stupidity is an automatic result of trust, but I think I can see where they are going (pun not intended) with this satnav analysis. It reminds me of the experiments about removing all the signs from roads to increase driver awareness. The argument is that signs may actually impede people thinking for themselves and give them a false sense of security as they believe they can detach themselves from actual environmental concerns. I guess another way of looking at it is the last generation of signs (past knowledge) may be found insufficient when trying to handle the current set of known risks.

I say this all just goes to show how humans are eager to believe that “easier”, “clear” or “more convenient” often means “perfectly safe” instead of “slightly improved, with additional sources of information, proceed with caution”.

It’s a premature mission accomplished mentality that often gets people in the most trouble.

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