A Y2K-like bug could cause problems for your GPS soon

The date system used when GPS was being developed only has 19 years' worth of numbers, and now 19 years is up.

Kyle Hyatt Former news and features editor
Kyle Hyatt (he/him/his) hails originally from the Pacific Northwest, but has long called Los Angeles home. He's had a lifelong obsession with cars and motorcycles (both old and new).
Kyle Hyatt
2 min read
A TomTom sat nav satnav satelite navigator at work in a car
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A TomTom sat nav satnav satelite navigator at work in a car

Your old GPS unit could be getting pretty confused soon thanks to a Y2K-like bug.

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Nearly 20 years later, the whole Y2K bug panic seems quaint to those of us old enough to remember it, but something like it is popping up on April 6, and it involves the global positioning satellite network that we know more commonly as GPS.

Before you get all overexcited and rush to the outdoor store to buy survival supplies, know that this problem isn't as severe as Y2K was thought to be and should mostly only affect older GPS units. So, what exactly is the issue then?

When the GPS software was being created in the 1970s and launched in 1980, computers had minimal processing power and memory, so to save a little room, the date counter was coded in 10 bits. What that means is that a finite number of dates can be shown before the system runs out of combinations and rolls over.

Specifically, there are 19 years' worth of dates that the system can handle before a rollover, and that means that this isn't the first time we've had to deal with this problem, though GPS is much more common now than it was in 1999.

So, now you're probably wondering how this will affect you -- and odds are pretty good that it won't affect you at all. The only devices really at risk of malfunctioning are old or based on old designs. Even then, the part of GPS that lets you find where you're going should be unaffected, but anything that relies on a specific date and time wouldn't work correctly.

GPS manufacturers like TomTom have created websites to help you navigate this GPS rollover, so if you are wondering if your older unit will need some kind of an update, check the manufacturer's website.

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