Monday, November 28, 2011

To GPS or not GPS?

Road Trippin'
with Steve McCarthy
To GPS or not GPS?
That is indeed a question. Is it nobler to bear the slings and arrows of a map or to arm oneself with something more modern? OK, enough of paraphrasing Hamlet. It's too easy. It IS coming on the season of gift giving bacchanalia, and tech toys are a staple. GPS has been around for a while, so many of the bugs are worked out. Or are they?
First, GPS, like every other bit of techno-wizardry is a TOOL! Nothing more,nothing less. If it can't do the job, no matter how glitzy and sexy it might be, why bother. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I am more than a bit of a neo-luddite. I got a 'pooter when they began to address my needs. I still don't have a cell phone. I'm about as anti-tech-for-tech-sake as a guy can be in this ever technological age. Hell, I drive a TR3 ferchissake! I don't even have electronic ignition! So who better to give you the skinny on GPS? 
OK, I bought one. The day before our massive 4600 mile road trip that you've been reading about for the past few months. I got a Garmin on the advice of several more tech literate friends. The nuvi 1450 was pretty highly rated on several websites, so, after hunting one down (took several stores to find just that one) I got one at Radio Shack. I did not get the one with lifetime maps, figuring that we'll use it mostly on road trips on back roads, they're not making any more of them, so who needs the updates. IF however, you need one because you regularly do deliveries, or are a chauffeur, you might think seriously about the extra hundred bucks or so that life time map upgrades will cost you. Think about your needs, then get the one that fits. Bragging rights are lame and expensive. This is not then a side by side comparison, it's just six months of living with the thing, using it on road trips and around town.
First, yes, it is a useful tool in many ways. Second, it does have serious limitations for Road Trippers. Let's address the positives first. Probably the number one feature that is helpful is hitting the "Home" button if you are in really unfamiliar territory and got yourself turned around. No matter how turned around you are, it will at least get you to major roads and you can reset from there. Second, IF you take the time to program in your route, it is easier than reading a map in a bouncing car. the Garmin has a feature that can call up the next several turnings so you can see what's next and what's next after that. Third, it gives you plenty of notice as to when you'll be turning, unlike some navigators I've driven with ("Hey, turn HERE!") and having that notice makes things a lit easier. By the way, Marianne is NOT one of those, she gives great directions in plenty of time. Usually. Like all people, myself included, she sometimes goofs. Rarely, but stuff  sometimes happens. Next, it's pretty handy for finding restaurants and motels. We were really grateful for this on this summer's trip when when we were finally rolling into Grand Junction and needed some eats and a place to sleep. Between the GPS and the AAA guide, we were satisfied on both counts. Lastly, the extra bells and whistles are kinda fun. You're not limited to the one annoying voice that sounds so perturbed when you don't do what it wants you to do "reCALculating..." or the same icon that follows the road. Several are down loadable from the Garmin website as well as fun voices you can get form places like I now have "Sean Connery" telling me that he was "just out walking my rat and got lost..."  and randomly asking me if I expect him to talk. I also got Yoda and Clint Eastwood. The five inch touch screen is pretty easy to use (don't bother getting anything smaller, they are worthless!) and the constant orientation that follows the road is a good idea. The trip info is good and you can add a panel to the display that gives you a variety of info, such as direction of travel, elevation, time, speed (and local speed limit!), time and mile to destination, arrival time and others. These are customizable to your needs. Pretty cool. Another useful tool is the traffic link. Around LA, it will tell you in close to real time if there is bad traffic up ahead, and where it is. It's not infallible, but more useful than "Traffic on the fives" which never seem to address the problems where YOU happen to be. Especially if it involves the San Gabriel Valley. It's like we don't exist. but I digress. One of the most useful features is the one that not only tells you which lane to be in to make a freeway transition, but shows you a picture of the interchange. This is extremely helpful when navigating in unfamiliar territory. Like San Diego! Where'd all those extra freeways come from? 
The so-so features are few. The trip info is useful in knowing how far you've gone but setting up your mileage and the "Eco Challenge" are pretty useless. Since the thing is not directly hooked into your car's computer, you have to set what you think is your average mileage and the price of gas. Since both of these things vary so much, it's only a mere approximation. The Eco Challenge also will track your driving habits on a rather arbitrary graph. Allegedly, it factors in your speed, braking and acceleration to give you a score. It seems to me that this score is heavily influenced by your speed and minimally by the other two. It has no way of knowing what gear you are in and how many revs you are turning. A blast up a mountain road at 40mph but in second gear at high revs will get you a better score than 55mph in fifth on the freeway. The other so-so thing is mounting it somewhere. California Law dictates that you can only mount them in either lower corner of the windshield. Not always the most useful place, especially if you are relying on a navigator. You both need to see it. Mounting on the dashboard is an impossibility in many cars, and on most, dangerous. It would seem that just above the glove box, slightly to the left of the passenger would be good. Just where the airbag will deploy, making the GPS a lethal missile. Not such a good idea that. 

So, what are the down sides? The thing has way too many languages. Sure, Garmin is global, but do they really need Basque (and not Gaelic!) and Slovenian? Some are just annoying, like the British lady who always sounds inconvenienced when she is forced to recalculate because of your incompetence. The other bad thing is the Bad Traffic Avoidance function. Just turn it off. It seems to over react to any slow down, and wants to send you on the most round about way to get somewhere. Seriously, in testing this, it took me almost an hour longer to get to Monrovia from Long Beach to avoid a ten minute slow down. Naturally, the default is sending you down the Dreaded Interstate when ever possible. To set up a backroads drive, you have to set several via points to force it to take the route you want. If you take the time to set all this up, It does an OK job, but you still need a map and an idea of where you want to go. On more than one occasion, the poor thing was just overwhelmed and wanted us to go places we couldn't. "In 400 feet, turn right" which would have sent us over a cliff. Yeah, it's entertaining, but...
The WORST thing about GPS however is the tendency to send you down a road you really shouldn't be on. This probably doesn't apply to us Veteran Road Trippers as much, hell, we WANT to drive the weird twisty roads. But Justin and Madison Average in their minivan loaded with their 2.2 kids, the labrador, and the giant stroller probably shouldn't drive on some of these roads. Case in point. In heading south on the 101 from San Luis Obispo, the damn thing will want you to go over Hwy 154 and San Marcos Pass. this will cut the Gaviota Corner on the 101. Now I like 154. It's a pretty neat road, but not for Mr & Ms. Average. It's even worse for truck drivers. The guy who took his car-carrier rig over Angeles Crest and lost his brakes in La Canada, killing a couple of folks took that route on the advice of his GPS. 

My point is you have to bloody well THINK. All the technojazzystuff in the world will not replace that most uncommon of all things, Common Sense. You really do need a map and a brain to Road Trip. You really need a brain and the ability to use it and think for yourself. Should you ask Santa for a GPS? Sure, they have their uses. Just don't turn off your grey matter. So, (delivered in a somewhat Scottish/Connery accent) "Drive your so called car to the route I've highlighted, God I miss the Aston Martin DB-5!" 


  1. Yeah... we've sure had fun with ours.... and she (known as Betty) occasionally says "Forty metres turn right" when there's a lake right beside us. Other than that she's good. GPS was great as we wandered round USA earlier this year. We'll have one with the Peugeot 3008 we're leasing next September in Italy/Germany.

  2. Another fascinating thing about GPS is how this technology became more creative by using famous voices. It's like I'm having Miss Piggy sitting at the back yelling me instructions to turn right or if I missed a block!

    Leisa Dreps