"If you want to start using driverless cars, accurate map information is fundamental," Dan Jaksa, a researcher with governmental agency Geoscience Australia, told the BBC. "We have tractors in Australia starting to go around farms without a driver, and if the information about the farm doesn't line up with the co-ordinates coming out of the navigation system there will be problems."
Consumer navigation systems are sometimes inaccurate on other continents as well, but the impact of Australia's tectonic shifts is unique. Last updated in 1994, the country's local coordinate system is long out of date, researchers say.
A new version is now scheduled to replace it by January 2017 — moving Australia 1.8 meters (just less than 6 feet) to the north, which is where it should be by 2020.
But more adjustments will be necessary in the future. On average, the continent is shifting 0.2 feet per year to the north. That shift has been going on for millions of years. About 100 million years ago, Antarctica, India and Australia were all connected, then over the next 55 million years, they split up — setting off a movement that continues today.
It may not be noticeable to us — but maps and location data leave no doubts.
George Musser, an editor with the Scientific American, spent weeks researching why GPS systems and maps are sometimes off by several feet. Apart from GPS hardware challenges and misalignments that stem from the satellite images the location data is based on, geology presents a particular obstacle to scientists, he says.
"I discovered a sizable infrastructure of geographers, geologists, and geodesists dedicated to ensuring that maps are accurate," Musser wrote in the Scientific American. "But they are always a step behind the restless landscape. Geologic activity can create significant errors in the maps on your screens," he wrote.