Getting lost with a GPS? Unfortunately, yes

For any other directionally challenged couples out there, a cautionary tale: read the fine print before letting the device lead you through hill and dale.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
When the road disappeared after a hairpin turn, I knew this was definitely not going according to plan.

Then again, nothing about our evening ride back to San Francisco was turning out as expected, a source of no small irritation to my increasingly irritated wife.

Let me back up.

When it comes to finding my way, I'm no Daniel Boone, but I'm not a complete dork, either. Inside the family, there's no small difference of opinion about that claim. For the sake of matrimonial harmony, I'll leave it at that. (Though for the record: my wife's navigational prowess will hardly ever be confused with that of either Lewis or Clark.) But let's not quibble about the clear conclusion: Chez Cooper was a prime candidate for some off-the-shelf technology help.

On vacations, I've rented cars with built-in global positioning systems units on several occasions. No complaints with the experience. So over the holidays, I decided to surprise my better half with a Garmin GPS.

That's when the fun really began.

Garmin sells a simple and reliable device. Unfortunately, it doesn't relieve you of the responsibility for using your brain. A certain somebody (no names, here) had programmed the device to calculate the route based on the shortest route. As I was about to discover, the shortest route did not come close to approximating the shortest time.

The Sunday evening traffic on Interstate 80 was particularly heavy as it coincided with the end of the Christmas-New Year's break. Many vacationers returning to San Francisco from Lake Tahoe added to the congestion as I pointed my car south upon leaving Folsom, a city about 120 miles away from San Francisco.

With everyone in the car dozing quietly, the Nuvi instructed me to exit the highway long before we were scheduled to reach the bridge entrance to the city. That seemed odd. Our plan was to first stop in Oakland to drop off a friend, who had spent the day with us.

"Hey, the Nuvi knows," I said to myself. "And I'm not going to second guess my co-pilot."

That opinion was not fully shared by the backseat drivers in the car, who, by this time, had stirred from their slumber. Why was I getting off at the wrong exit, they wanted to know. "Do you know where you're going?"

It's not the wrong exit, I said. "It's a shortcut that the GPS calculated. Trust me."

My curt response cost me dearly after the "shortcut" turned into a 10-mile-long stop-and-go parking lot. I can't blame the Nuvi for that one. In time, the traffic let up and we were back on our way toward our destination. Before long, the sign for Oakland appeared up ahead.

But the Nuvi, still in shortcut mode, ignored the turnoff. Then so did I.

"What are you doing?" my wife asked in a tone usually reserved for those special occasions where yours truly screws up big time.

I rolled my eyes.

"Relax, the Nuvi knows what it's doing. Let's just follow the route. OK?"

Ever fantasize about having the ability to wind back the clock and retract some of the more egregiously dumb statements you've ever uttered? This was one of those times. A few minutes later the Nuvi had us rolling through pitch black country roads that rose and fell in rhythm with the undulating terrain of Northern California.

We had no idea where we had landed, other than that it was in the wrong place. Still, the Nuvi was confidently talking up a storm. Turn left here, turn right there--no crisis of confidence on the part of the GPS.

My wife, on the other hand, was having a royal fit. When the road narrowed to a single car's width and we were forced to navigate a series of 90-degree turns above an escarpment, she dug her nails into my arm.

"The GPS is taking us in the opposite direction," she said. "Can you understand that?"

I nodded. This time I kept my big mouth shut. The road--and I'm being charitable by describing it as such--meandered for miles with nary a sign of civilization. We did come across a couple of very surprised cows, who scattered without much persuasion.

The country road eventually hooked up with the Oakland hills and the rest of the journey proved uneventful, ignoring the inevitable lecture my wife delivered after we dropped off our friend at her house.

For the record, though, the Nuvi did know where it was heading. It just took its sweet time getting there. .