We’d entrusted our route to the Google Maps app on my iPhone; it had never steered us wrong. The program assured me that yes, the winding road between Santa Maria and Interstate 5 was the fastest, most direct route to our destination. It even showed me the gas stations along the way: a Texaco, an Exxon and a Chevron.
Wrong on all counts.
Our “direct” route took us on a narrow two-lane road through Central California’s hill country, a sparsely populated part of the Golden State. By the time we reached the promised location of the first gas station, the “E” light was glaring at me from the dashboard and we were running on fumes. But the station was nowhere to be found. That was about when we noticed the refineries and realized that our helpful app couldn’t tell the difference between a gas station and a fuel processing plant.
Directions offered via smartphone through a mapping service such as Google Maps or Mapquest and aided by the Global Positioning System (GPS), the satellite-based navigation system that provides location information, have always been a little iffy. But recent advances hold the promise of change.
Google has unveiled what it’s calling a “next generation” update to its maps program that will allow it to map off-road locations; a spokesman told me that the company is also making all its directions “more accurate.” And Apple, maker of the uber-popular iPhone, has announced that it’s developing a new mapping application that will be available with its latest phone operating system. With two leading GPS apps in your smartphone, you’ll be able to plot a route with both to see whether they agree; if they don’t, you can consult a “real” map or just ask for directions.
It’s not yet clear whether the upgrades will arrive in time to benefit summer travelers. If they do, it won’t be a moment too soon.
Susan Miller, a communications consultant in South Florida, recently asked her Garmin GPS device to plot a course from Plantation, Fla., to SeaWorld in Orlando. Instead, the map led her to the SeaWorld gift shop at Orlando International Airport. (Fortunately, the theme park is only a few miles away.) “I thought we were headed in the wrong direction, but I kept doing what it told me to,” says Miller. “It was exasperating.”
An experience like that might be a one-time annoyance to some travelers, but it can be a big problem for travel-related businesses, such as Chehalem Ridge Bed & Breakfast in Oregon’s wine country. An error in Google Maps and other GPS-based mapping applications sends visitors on a two-mile detour down a gravel road, says innkeeper Kristin Fintel. “It’s frustrating for me, knowing that our guests were inconvenienced and that potential guests reading reviews might avoid us because it was a challenge to find,” she says.