How Google Maps led me astray

Google Maps should be the all-knowing geographic assistant that gets me where I need to go. But after some botched navigation on a European vacation, I now have trust issues.

Google Maps had screen orientation issues and sometimes wouldn't even show where on the map it thought we were.
Google Maps had screen orientation issues and sometimes wouldn't even show where on the map it thought we were. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

I should be more grateful. As comedian Louis CK says, everything is amazing.

But three weeks ago, when Google Maps directed me to drive my car up some stairs in Rijeka, Croatia, it was awfully hard to appreciate the miracle of modern technology.

I'm a cartography lover, so no Google project has directly appealed to me more than Google Maps. I eagerly embraced every new ability: plotting routes, finding businesses, scoping out neighborhoods, booking hotel rooms, exploring destinations, figuring out my location during a hike -- and using the Android app to give me turn-by-turn driving directions.

As Google Maps' driving directions improved in the four years I've been using them, I grew to rely on the app more and more for navigation. It made mistakes every now and again, but gone were the days when I'd pay a rental car company a big premium for a beat-up sat-nav device.

Alas, my love affair ended during my August vacation in Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. My Nexus 5 phone and I were lead navigators for a two-car family trip, and I was led astray so often that it became a running joke.

20140802-google-maps-iphone-001.jpg
In desperation, we swapped out my Nexus 5 for my wife's iPhone at one point. It was better, but still had problems. Stephen Shankland/CNET

I'm willing to cut the app some slack. GPS satellite radio signals can be blocked by buildings and trees. The network was occasionally spotty. Given those tight switchbacks in the Dolomites of Italy, I can forgive a phone that thought I pulled a U-turn when in reality I drove through a tight 180-degree hairpin turn.

But this was worse. Here are some of the problems I experienced:

  • Orientation problems meant that the app, instead of representing our car as a blue arrow pointing forward on a road that extended up the screen, would rotate the view about 60 degrees. It's not a critical problem, but it means a driver has to perform one more transformation before understanding the image. On other occasions the arrow was oriented sideways to the road. Once it was so bad it showed our arrow pointing backward while the road extended forward. Though most of these problems were blips, the last one took an app restart to fix.
  • Several times, the app showed our car driving way off the road. I've had this problem before and attributed it to GPS issues, but it was distressingly frequent on our trip, and many times I couldn't even see our "you are here" blue arrow on the screen.
  • When we were trying to drive northwest to Vicenza, the app routed us southeast to Padua on the autostrada. We drove about 20 kilometers the wrong way before figuring it out. This angered me so much that I fired my Nexus 5 and tried my wife's iPhone 5S running Google Maps. It seemed less bamboozled and it tracked orientation better, but later in the trip it also gave bad advice.
  • And in Rijeka, Croatia, the app routed us up a very steep and narrow street. I was skeptical but followed the advice. At the top, where the street was blocked by bollards and turned into a path in a park, the app advised us to take the stairs. (No, I hadn't changed it to pedestrian mode.) It took about 10 minutes to turn around our miniconvoy and extricate ourselves.

Google wants Google Maps to be the all-knowing geographic assistant that gets me where I need to go. But now I have trust issues.

Google Maps' difficulties figuring out our orientation were particularly paralyzing when navigating roundabouts and complicated cloverleaf intersections.
Google Maps' difficulties figuring out our orientation were particularly paralyzing when navigating roundabouts and complicated cloverleaf intersections. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In the long run, I'm confident Google will fix this. Its mapping service is immensely important, and what Google has accomplished with it is impressive. I use it for routine daily life as well as trying to figure out how to get to Venice via vaporetto. It's great for exploring new areas like the sights of Iceland. The mobile revolution has increased the importance of Google Maps tenfold, since it now travels with us. It ranks with giants like e-mail, Facebook, and Netflix that are deeply embedded in millions of people's lives.

Indeed, Google has shown some improvement. The sort of frequent app crashes I suffered on a business trip in the UK seem to have been fixed, for example. The company tells me it's aware of the issues I reported, including the apparent switch into pedestrian mode that led me to the stairs -- and is fixing them. And the company encourages people to use Google Maps' "report a problem" system. "The reports we get from users really help us improve Google Maps for everyone," the company said.

Google has a direct financial incentive to keep Maps humming. It sells ads on the site, and it sells access to the service to other companies that want to embed map data on their own services. With the interiors of malls and stores showing up in Google Maps, you can bet there will be new opportunities to generate revenue, too.

Google Maps runs rings around sat-nav systems in some ways. The ease of saying to my phone "navigate to the American Hospital of Paris" starkly contrasts with the difficulties of painstakingly entering addresses into the in-dash computer letter by letter. Our sat-nav system is even worse when trying to search for some point of interest whose address I don't know in advance. But once you set that address, the car's clunky old system is solidly reliable.

Google Maps now fills me with dread as well as awe. It's hard to build trust, but harder to repair it, and that's what Google must do now.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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