Operating commercially since 1995, the Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites which provides location information anywhere on the surface of the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more satellites. One of the most popular uses of GPS is as a navigational tool while driving. Much like seat belts and radios, GPS units are quickly becoming a standard feature in most cars.
How does GPS affect the way we drive? What unexpected consequences does this technology bring with it?
Benefits of GPSEdit
The number of competing GPS manufacturers is a testament to the versatile nature of this technology. TomTom, Garmin, Navteq,Magellan, and Google Maps are just some of the many companies involved in GPS. This competition spurs innovative uses of the technology, benefiting drivers and society.
Benefits to DriversEdit
GPS systems possess many advantages over traditional navigation methods such as maps and road signs. While these methods require visual attention, GPS units provide auditory cues and a simplified interface for quick viewing. In addition, these systems map out routes ahead of time, providing street names and distances so that drivers are not distracted. These benefits pay statistical dividends: multiple studies have attested to the improved safety of GPS units. While these reports are usually funded by GPS system manufacturers, they still point to important trends in driving patterns. A study conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and funded by GPS maker TomTom revealed several impressive statistics of improved safety. 77% of drivers felt more in control when using GPS systems, 72% felt less stressed, and 53% felt more alert on the road. In a similar study conducted by social science research group NuStats and funded by Navteq, GPS-using drivers used 12% less fuel, drove 1500 less miles, and emitted 24% less carbon dioxide. These statistics point to a safer and more efficient driving experience provided by GPS units.
GPS & InsuranceEdit
GPS has the potential to change the way we see auto insurance. By tracking a driver’s speed, acceleration, and hours on the road, GPS can provide a much more accurate risk assessment than classic actuarial tables. Insurance companies have begun to offer premiums based on telematics data, including GPS, rather than traditional measures. This usage-based insurance (UBI) is especially enticing for drivers in high-risk demographics, such as young men. It also encourages safe driving habits by rewarding cautious behavior on the road. Diane Koken, the former insurance commissioner for Pennsylvania, said that UBI “allows customers to understand and actually eliminate their risk behaviors, and hopefully to even reduce accident frequency.” Several insurance companies have already begun to offer UBI as an option to their customers, and industry experts expect 20 percent of all auto insurance in the United States to incorporate UBI within the next five years. GPS tracking for UBI has raised privacy concerns because it can track an individual's location. As UBI grows in popularity, its privacy concerns will continue to move into the public spotlight. Researchers have suggested designing GPS units that send only the minimal data required for calculation of insurance premiums. Some insurance providers, such as Progressive, have simply opted to offer UBI based on accelerometer and mileage data, bypassing the need for GPS altogether.
GPS Fleet TrackingEdit
Companies in the trucking industry have begun using GPS to track vehicles in their fleets, which has led to a major social shift within the industry. Prior to GPS technology, companies had little oversight of their drivers' actions. This freedom encouraged reckless habits like speeding and fatigued driving, which endangered both safety and company profits. GPS has changed this by allowing companies to monitor their employees’ vehicles. Dangerous or inefficient behaviors can be quickly identified and corrected, making the roads safer for other drivers. This also has the benefit of reducing trucking costs and emissions by identifying the shortest paths to destinations and ensuring that fuel-efficient speeds are maintained. GPS data can also be used to reconstruct accidents, and can be used in litigation to establish fault.
Dangers of using GPSEdit
While there are many advantages to GPS systems, there are also dangers associated with their use. Chief among these is the increased temptation to interface with the GPS unit while driving, whether to alter a route or change its settings. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17% of automobile crashes involved distracted driving. GPS is certainly not the only cause for such distractions, but it presents an opportunity for the user to occupy his or her hands and attention. Attempts to combat this include a warning screen on the GPS, locks on its functionality until the vehicle is stopped, and legislation. A report in 2012 revealed that drivers in California were being ticketed for using GPS on smartphones while driving. Other states have begun legislating the GPS distraction battle as well: 26 states have outlawed windshield mounts for GPS units to prevent obstruction. Such distractions and obstructions can pose serious safety problems and counteract the efficient driving habits that GPS should induce.
Trust in GPSEdit
The following are a few examples of drivers putting so much trust in GPS - without understanding its limitations - that both posted signs and common sense are ignored when danger looms.
Disaster can strike when a truck driver fails to plan his or her route carefully to avoid low-clearance bridges. In response to increasing incidents of truck-bridge collisions, New York state formed a Bridge Strike Task Force in 2009. This task force found a particularly high rate of occurrences on the parkway system despite signage directing truckers toward expressways. In a 2011 survey, New York State Troopers learned that 90 percent of truckers who struck parkway bridges were following instructions from a GPS unit. Such units do not take into account the size of the user's vehicle when planning routes, and are not suitable for truck route planning.
Death Valley TragediesEdit
In July of 2010, Donna Cooper and two others ventured into Death Valley on a day trip that turned into a three day struggle for survival. Their GPS unit directed them off the highway onto dirt roads for a short cut to their destination. They quickly became lost, and faulty directions from their GPS unit guided them further from civilization until they ran out of gas. A rescue helicopter spotted the group two days later, sweltering in the 120 degree heat. Others have not been so lucky. In the last 15 years, at least a dozen Death Valley visitors have died from heat-related illness. In 2009, a mother and son using their GPS unit became stuck on a long-abandoned mining trail. The mother barely survived, and her son perished before they were found.
900 Mile DetourEdit
In January 2013, Sabine Moureau drove to pick up a friend at a train station an hour's drive north of her home in Wallonia, Belgium. She programmed her GPS to take her there, and only when she reached Zagreb, Croatia did she realize she had been misdirected. Trusting fully in her GPS, she drove 900 miles through Germany, Austria, and Slovenia, filling up her gas tank twice and even stopping to spend the night in her car, all without questioning the navigator's instructions. Mrs. Moureau told reporters she had simply let the GPS take over and shut her mind off, saying, "I was distracted."
Neurological Impact of GPSEdit
MRI scans have shown that when compared to frequent GPS users, non-users have more gray matter in the hippocampus, the section of the brain involved in memory and spatial mapping. This corroborates a 2010 Berkeley study claiming that GPS makes driving routes more accurate but decreases broader understanding of the spatial layout of a city. A 2006 study showed that taxi drivers in London, who are required to learn 25,000 city streets by memory, have more hippocampus gray matter than their peers. This again indicates a strong link between mental spatial mapping and hippocampus size.
The Autopilot EffectEdit
We introduce the autopilot effect to describe a lack of common sense in decision-making due to overconfidence in technology. This term was chosen because a common culprit in many aviation mistakes is misplaced trust in autopilot. In 2009, for example, overreliance on autopilot in icy conditions was cited as a factor in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407. Trust in autopilot is also thought to have played a role in the crash of Asiana flight 214 in July 2013. The autopilot effect can be used to understand many of the driving mishaps attributed to GPS. In-vehicle GPS navigation systems are designed to find the most efficient route to a destination, but changing traffic patterns can quickly make a device’s maps inaccurate. Problems arise when drivers assume GPS units to be infallible and fail to assess situations on the road with their own judgment. The autopilot effect can also be observed in other aspects of everyday life. Overreliance on autocorrect can lead to embarrassing miscommunication, and overuse of calculators can cripple students’ ability to perform even basic mental calculations.
Opposition to GPSEdit
There were no groups found that support the outright elimination of GPS. Therefore, the term opponents in this case refers to those groups fighting to restrict GPS use. Most opponents are regulatory bodies and small groups of individuals.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety AdministrationEdit
In September 2012, New York state Senator Charles Schumer called on the Department of Transportation to investigate an increase in bridge strikes by commercial trucks using GPS units. The FMCSA got involved and implemented a two-step plan to address the problem in New York. It began distributing official recommendations to trucking operators encouraging the selection of professional grade navigation systems. This would ensure trucking companies used GPS units that take bridge clearances and truck size into account when planning routes.
National Highway Transportation Safety AgencyEdit
In February of 2012, NHTSA published guidelines for automakers on mitigating the distraction caused by GPS use. The publication cites a number of federal studies on driver distraction and singles out GPS functions it considers most dangerous. For example, NHTSA discourages the use of dynamic displays, which follow the driver's path.
Rural English VillagesEdit
A number of small English towns have seen an influx of large cargo trucks following GPS directions onto their narrow country roads. In Wedmore, England, misguided trucks have torn fences, ripped off car mirrors, and even wedged themselves between buildings. Residents are campaigning to have their town removed from GPS databases. In response, companies such as Tele Atlas suggested the towns install their own signs to ward off trucks.
In August 2013, Gary Bojczak was fined $32,000 for jamming GPS signals at the Newark Liberty International Airport. He had installed a GPS-jamming device in his pickup truck to hide his location from his employer. This protest echoes the frustrations of other privacy advocates who feel that employer-mandated GPS tracking units invade their privacy.
Charlie Callagan is a ranger at the Death Valley National Park. In response to numerous cases of lost tourists, Mr. Calligan and other rangers began working with TomTom, Navteq, and Google Earth to update electronic records of over one hundred Death Valley roads. When asked about these incidents he said, "It's what I'm beginning to call death by GPS. People are renting vehicles with GPS and they have no idea how it works and they are willing to trust the GPS to lead them into the middle of nowhere."
GPS & Autonomous VehiclesEdit
A future application of the social interface of GPS technology is autonomous vehicles. While most of this study has centered around how GPS overrides users' common sense, autonomous vehicles must rely fully on external navigation units. Fear of disaster has led several groups to develop non-GPS navigational sources. As part of the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicle development, a navigational system comprised solely of accelerometers, gyroscopes, and clocks has been built.  A competitor, the Google Driverless Car, uses highly specific road and terrain maps to complement GPS units.  As autonomous vehicles continue to develop, these challenges will pose an interesting study for the Autopilot Effect.
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