Stories Of GPS Directions Gone Wrong

Slate.com writer Emily Yoffe hoped her limited sense of direction would be cured by her GPS. Now she backs up the device with printed directions. In an article for the Washington Post, she talks about how her GPS has steered her wrong. Tell us your GPS horror story.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

What a gift is modern technology - GPS, for instance. If you don't have a sense of direction, there's a soothing voice to tell you…

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Woman: Drive .6 miles then turn right.

NEARY: And if you happen to take a wrong turn, your GPS will gently guide you back.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Woman: Recalculating. Turn left, then turn right.

NEARY: And there you are.

(Soundbite of GPS)

Unidentified Woman: Arriving at destination.

NEARY: You've arrived, all right - at the edge of a lake. Emily Yoffe bemoaned the trials and tribulations of the GPS in the Washington Post last month. She joins us in a moment. And we want to hear from you. Has your GPS ever led you astray? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer at Slate.com and she is with me now in Studio 3A. Emily, good to have you.

Ms. EMILY YOFFE (Journalist, slate.com): It's a miracle I'm here.

NEARY: And did you use your GPS to get here? I want to know.

Ms. YOFFE: No. I came on foot and had to ask about five people, where do I go?

NEARY: Because you don't have a good sense of direction, I understand.

Ms. YOFFE: A former boyfriend once said I made Hansel and Gretel look like Louis and Clark.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So, you probably thought that GPS was a pretty good idea when it first came out, I would think?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, it was mixed for me because I'm a complete technophobe, so I was terrified of having to use it. But I - my daughter told me - she's 13 now - when she was little, when we used to get on Washington's Beltway, she said, I was always afraid you were going to have a heart attack, mom, and I didn't know what a heart attack was. But you would always start crying, I don't know where I am, and would make me really scared. So, that's - yes, I needed help.

NEARY: All right. So, when you first got the GPS, did it ever worked for you at any point, or has it always been a problem?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, I have to say, in some ways it is a miracle but you never know when it's going to get you out of a jam. We initiated it by taking a trip to IKEA. Now, we'd been there before but always had to print out directions. So, we got on the Beltway, got off, and then it told us to take a left instead of the usual right. And we thought, well, this is the genius shortcut only GPS knows about. And after 10 minutes, ever deeper into a residential neighborhood, we came upon a couch which was not from IKEA, which had a sign on it, saying you can't drive through here. So, clearly, the people who live there had been driven insane by people looking for discount furniture and being led astray by their GPS.

NEARY: And did you ever find your way out of that dead end there?

Ms. YOFFE: We traced our way out and just went the way we normally did.

NEARY: But I think it was your in-laws who had a similar problem. And that ended kind of disastrously.

Ms. YOFFE: Well, they've been the most victimized by GPS of anyone I've ever known. And they themselves don't have a GPS. They live on a cul-de-sac which GPS thinks is a cut-through to a major street. So, they're very used to - they have a gravel driveway - all hours of the night…

(Soundbite of brakes skidding)

Ms. YOFFE: …and cars turn around. But one morning - they're in their 90's. They were awakened by an explosion in their driveway. Someone had, following the GPS, driven up to their house, realized he was at the literal end of the road and set his car on fire. Now, I realize this is an extreme reaction to your GPS and it turns out there were some preexisting problems. But…

NEARY: Mental problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YOFFE: …you can't - yeah. You can understand that you've been driven crazy by your GPS.

NEARY: Yeah. And another story that you told that I had particular interest in was you were - I think, you were going from Maryland to somewhere north. Pretty much a straight shot on the Jersey Turnpike which…

Ms. YOFFE: We were going to New Jersey.

NEARY: You were going to New Jersey, which most people in Washington, D.C. know that you just - it's kind of a straight shot up the Jersey Turnpike. But your GPS device told you to do something different, and you listened to the GPS.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YOFFE: Well, no. I didn't. I - now, I always print out directions with - so, I'm in this dilemma. The GPS will tell me to do one thing, the MapQuest will say something else. But, yes, you take the Jersey Turnpike to Jersey. We were - my husband and I were on the Jersey Turnpike when she started, like, maniacally saying, get off the Jersey Turnpike, get off the Jersey Turnpike. And he said she knows something we don't know. And I said, do not listen to her. And he was kind of like Mark Sanford being seduced by a female, and off we went. And this detour did as much for our marriage as Mark Sanford's trip to Buenos Aires did for his.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Have you named your GPS device?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, I think of her as Lady McGPS because, like Lady Macbeth, you know, she seems, on the surface, very lovely, but she has evil intent in her heart.

NEARY: Yeah. We are talking about the evils of the GPS. If you'd like to join us, give us a call at 800-989-8255 and tell us your story with the GPS. We're going to go to the phones now and we're going to call - go to Patrick(ph), who is in Greenbrier. Hi, Patrick.

PATRICK (Caller): Well, how are you doing?

NEARY: Good.

PATRICK: Appreciate your letting me talk. Yeah, I got a brand-new GPS system and - just trying to find my way around as a newbie to Arkansas. And so I inputted Wal-Mart, and lo and behold, I followed the directions, and when she started saying that I had reached my destination, I was in the middle of a rice field. And there was certainly not a Wal-Mart anywhere around. And so I thought that was really pretty funny. It kind of made me doubt the - all the technology that we have, as far as being able to trust it. But, yeah, that was pretty funny.

Ms. YOFFE: Well, see, this is - first of all, I love that Patrick calls her she, because you can't help but feeling…

NEARY: Everybody calls her she, it seems like.

Ms. YOFFE: Yes.

NEARY: Well, there's usually a woman's voice, as opposed to…

Ms. YOFFE: Right. But, you know, you start reading motives into this. Maybe this is someone who doesn't like the big box store, so that's why she's sending you into a rice field instead of to Wal-Mart. I mean, there's got to be a reason for some of these things.

NEARY: All right.

PATRICK: Well, let me tell you, I am directionally challenged and I have learned to depend on her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATRICK: But I find so many times I just tell her to shut up, because she nags and she nags and she nags. And her name's Sweetheart, by the way. And I'm always saying shut up, Sweetheart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay.

PATRICK: I'm telling you. She also - it seems like she develops a personality. If I don't turn where she says to turn, then it's like, hey, turn around, you know?

NEARY: You think she gets tougher, huh? Huh?

PATRICK: Well, she sure does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks for your call, Patrick.

PATRICK: All right. Bye-bye.

NEARY: We're going to go to Will(ph). Will is in San Francisco, California. Hi, Will.

WILL (Caller): Hi. I'm originally from Milwaukee and I used to go down to Chicago a lot, and I, you know, I use maps. And when GPS came out, I got one on my phone, and it's a TomTom and it has an Australian voice. So mine is a he.

NEARY: Okay.

WILL: And he says to get on the motorway. But anyway, I was working in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for a little while and I wanted to get some Asian food, fast food, and I put - there was a Panda Express, so this must be very close. And I followed the directions for Panda Express and it had me drive around the block three times before I realized it's like - I'm in a residential neighborhood. There's no Panda Express here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Why is it that we listen to that? Why is it that we listen to the GPS when all - everything, all other indicators are that the GPS is making no sense whatsoever.

WILL: Well, I thought like, well, you know, I must have missed it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILL: And then recently - well, a year ago, I moved to San Francisco and I have a Wal-Mart story too. I was looking for a Wal-Mart and it took me to Walmart.com, a big office building.

Ms. YOFFE: Oh. Well, it wasn't wholly wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILL: No.

Ms. YOFFE: But, you know, the thing is about listening when you know the machine is wrong, we imbue it, it's technology, so it's got to know more than we do. And I found, when I first got the GPS, and she would say, take the next right. I would start turning right even - and I realized, she doesn't know there's oncoming traffic over on my - I can't just do what she says. I have to look on the road.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Will. And here's an email that sort of gets to that in just a slightly different issue from Cal(ph) in Michigan: Yes, GPS is evil not just because the information is sometimes not correct, but because folks look at the GPS screen instead of where the car is going. Just yesterday, a fellow who was pulled off to the side of the road looking at his GPS decided he had to turn around and head the other way. He pulled out into traffic while still looking at the GPS and ran into and rolled over my boss's car. Off to the hospital he goes. He will survive. But don't folks look where they are going?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, that's just the point I made. It tells you to do something, you do it. And you lose all sense of - there's oncoming traffic. It's crazy.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. YOFFE: At least he wasn't texting, which apparently is the new thing to do while you're behind the wheel.

NEARY: Right. And here we have a poet. Wally(ph) in Gary, South Dakota. I won't touch one of them foul contraptions - rely on maps. Know my compass directions, rarely get lost. No GPS fooling, appreciate my geographical schooling.

Ms. YOFFE: Okay. But what about the rest of us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YOFFE: I mean, I - look, I inherited this thing. My parents were driving once, many decades ago, and my father told my mother to look something up on the map and he said it's north. And she said, north? He said, yes, north. And she pointed toward the sky and said, I thought north was up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YOFFE: So there are people like us out there. What are we supposed to do?

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Gene(ph), and Gene is calling from Fresno. Hi, Gene.

GENE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good.

GENE: I love you guys' GPSs stories. I've been using these things for -probably since their inception. And it's just great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GENE: I remember the old days when they were a little more challenging. But this is wonderful.

NEARY: So you're a GPS fan then?

GENE: Oh, yeah. I could teach you all the shortcuts. But the one thing that I teach and most of the stuff that I teach is - during the hunter safety course we teach here in California, I have to teach the children - part of it's survival in the wilderness. So a lot of the stuff I focus on is the handheld of GPSs. Back in the day, you could, you know, put them into your computer and use the paper - the computer map. But the one thing I always try to teach everyone is that these little devices are wonderful. And I love the road ones now. They tell you how to get places. And my wife hates my Lola(ph) - that's my GPS's name.

She wants Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice on there, being in California. But what I tell them is these things are wonderful little tools, but remember they're tools and they can break. So when you - if you're using one for the wilderness, those ones that people hand-hold and they kind of walk all over the place and go with them, mark where you get out of your car. Because if you go walking and then you turn it on and you don't mark where your car is, all the little device will tell you is where you're accident is going to happen, not how to get out of your accident or get back to where your car is. So that's one of the things that we teach a lot in our classes. But…

NEARY: But Gene, I have to ask you since you seem to be an expert on these things. They - these things do get it wrong sometimes. I mean - or they send you in a very complicated way.

GENE: They do. They do. And a lot of it is because of the way they're manufactured. Like - if you were to hit, like, say, fastest route, right? And the freeways - they will have a speed designated on these machines, whichever brand you may have - Magellan, Garmin or DeLorme or whatever. And they will take, let's say you're going to go 15 miles in a particular direction, or let's say the freeway's speed limit is 65. But you could be on a country road that's 10 miles from the freeway, which, you know, everyone on these country roads they fly down the road at breakneck speeds, so it's better to go the shortest route than the fastest route. So they'll take you along circuitous routes sometimes that you know, it's like no, I know better than this thing. But if you apply a little common sense, and a little laughter and a little family talk while Lola's talking to you while you're trying to have a conversation with your wife about which way to go, it can get pretty fun and interesting.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Gene.

Ms. YOFFE: Now I understand why this whole country road thing he was explaining - when I was driving my daughter home from camp, it was just on highways, but it told me to take a right and I ended up literally on Skunk Hollow Road, which I'd never seen before and, you know, doesn't invite you to linger. So there I was, bumping along Skunk Hollow Road because of my GPS lady.

NEARY: You - that's Emily Yoffe. She's a contributing writer to Slate.com. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to take a call now from Nikki(ph) in Cape Coral. Hi, Nikki.

NIKKI (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good.

NIKKI: I'm a FEMA inspector and was deployed during the last burst of storms in southern Louisiana. And my GPS…

(Soundbite of GPS)

NIKKI: …and it's speaking to me now - is - worked fabulously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NIKKI: And I was there for five weeks - never got lost. It was great. Then I came home to southwest Florida. It runs me into canals. It takes me around in circles. I have to look at my - and I do foreclosure inspections now, so I do about 30 to 35 a day. And out looking, I have to look at my instructions, where it's going to send me, because sometimes it just sends me in circles. I just go in circles.

NEARY: So it worked in one place and not in another. That's an interesting…

NIKKI: And I think it's because in southern Louisiana there's not a whole lot of growth and a whole lot of, you know, things that change. Where - here in southwest Florida, there's new communities that spring, you know, during the housing, you know, boom spring-up and GPS - I mean, they just haven't caught up with, you know, the new roads and stuff. But my boss will ask me, where was this house, and it's like, hmm, I don't know. My GPS told me how to get there.

NEARY: Okay.

NIKKI: I've also gotten to the point where I don't even know where I've been. I just follow where she tells me to go.

NEARY: Oh, my goodness. Nikki, you've got a lot going on in that car, so I'm going to let you go and let Emily respond. You pay attention to what's going on there now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YOFFE: Well, I got - after my piece ran in the Washington Post, I got an email from a guy who said, I am a software engineer and one of my jobs is programming an interface with the GPS system. So you can't get more - be more of an expert in that. He said he took it on a trip through California State Parks and it worked great until he and his wife were on a coastal range. There, it invited us to turn right, which would have taken us over a 500-foot cliff -quite a short cut. So, yes, you can't just rely on your GPS.

NEARY: I'm glad they stopped, just in time. Let's take one more call from Robert(ph) in Scottville. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

NEARY: Good. Thanks. Go ahead.

ROBERT: I'm a computer programmer, actually. And I have some experience with GPS. I use it a lot. And there's basically two reasons why the GPS units have inaccuracy. The first one is because of the map software that's in the GPS. A lot of times, it's not as accurate as online map sites and things like that. And it can be - lead you in a wrong direction that way.

And the second reason is because the signal can actually bounce off of buildings. In, like, a city where you have tall buildings, it'll bounce back and forth. And it can get an inaccuracy that way. And also these things are programmed by humans, you know, people, you and me, and we're not perfect. So, you know, the software is going to have, you know, mistakes in it and things like that.

NEARY: All right, Robert, thanks for explaining that for us.

Ms. YOFFE: I'm staying home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And it's programmed by humans. That's the problem - and used by humans also, we have to say that as well, right, Emily?

Ms. YOFFE: Yes.

NEARY: Okay. But you're going to keep using yours, I guess or I gather?

Ms. YOFFE: Well, it's about 80 percent helpful, so that's a little scary. You never know when it's going to send you off a cliff.

NEARY: Right.

Ms. YOFFE: But sometimes, it rescues you.

NEARY: Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to Slate.com. And we've posted a link to her piece, "My Global Positioning Serpent" at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And she joined us here in Studio 3A.

Have a safe drive home.

Ms. YOFFE: Thank you.

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