The Editor’s Desk: Adventures in technology

Who won the great navigation system war? Call it a draw

I recently purchased a new vehicle, after my previous one went to that great scrap heap in the sky: a 2014 Ford Escape, which came with several more bells and whistles than the 2004 Kia Sorento I had been driving. Indeed, as I was given a “tour” of my new vehicle, I realized that I was purchasing not so much a car as a computer that just happened to come with four tires, a steering wheel, and a number of cup holders.

One of those aforementioned bells and whistles was an on-board navigation system, which was something new to me; previously, my on-board navigation consisted of me remembering to look at a map before setting out on a journey. In the two months I had owned the Escape, I had not had occasion to use the navigation funtion, since my longest trip had been to Kamloops, and after 22 years of living here I’m fairly confident in my ability to get there and back without assistance.

However, last week I had to go to Penticton, and decided to put my new system through its paces. When I stopped to gas up in Merritt I programmed “Eckhardt Avenue, Pentiction” into the computer, then set out.

All was well for the first little while. However, the system had — not unnaturally, since it is a computer and thus highly logical — assumed I would be taking the most direct route, while I, being an unpredictable human, had decided to take the Aspen Grove – Princeton – Okanagan Falls route. My maternal grandparents had, when I was much younger, owned a property in OK Falls that was a frequent destination in summer, and our trip there from Richmond was over the Hope-Princeton. I wanted to drive at least a part of it once more, and since I had time and opportunity I thought “Why not?”

The first sign of trouble came when I disobeyed the verbal command to “bear left” at the junction with Highway 5A, and peeled off towards Princeton, some 60 kilometres away. “Make a legal U-turn” the computer advised, and when I declined, I was advised to make one in 200 metres. Instead I kept going straight, thus initiating a lengthy series of commands to either make a legal U-turn or turn off onto a side road. The voice remained calm and collected, with a steady tone, but if I listened carefully I thought I could hear a note of frustration creeping in.

(Speaking of those “legal” U-turns: really? Every suggested spot had double-yellow lines, and one was at an exceedingly narrow stretch of highway on a blind corner, with a lake on one side and a cliff on the other, while another was in the middle of a very active construction zone, where a U-turn would not, I suspect, have been safe, welcome, or indeed legal.)

I knew that at any point I could pull over and either disable or re-program the system, but soon it became a game: how long before the computer realized humans were illogical and simply gave up? The answer was 30 kilometres from Princeton, when the system stopped trying to make me turn back and recalculated my route. When I reached the junction with Highway 3 I was advised to turn left onto the Crowsnest Highway, which the computer pronounced as if “crow” rhymed with “now”. (That threw me slightly, although not as much as when I left Penticton and was advised to take the Okanagan Highway, with “Okanagan” pronounced “Oh-can-a-gan”, as if it was an Irish surname.)

The system tried once more to redirect me, when instead of turning north on Highway 97 near Kaleden I headed towards OK Falls so I could go along Eastside Road, but this time I merely got two suggestions that I make a legal U-turn before the system realized there was obviously no point, and recalculated my route. I swear I heard it sigh as it did so.

It was a learning experience for both of us: the logic of computers vs. the capriciousness of humans. Did either of us win? I suspect it’s safer to call it a draw. I just hope we’re still friends… .

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