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Telling satnavs where to go

I’ve been thinking about satnavs recently. Two things have conspired to make me do this.
Written by Sandra Vogel, Contributing Writer on

I’ve been thinking about satnavs recently. Two things have conspired to make me do this. First, I was sent a satnav device to review. The Econav 480. You can read about it at ZDNet’s First Take blog here.

Second, I saw a story in the super PocketGPSWorld newsletter bemoaning the state of satnav mapping. It mentioned a road traffic sign in Grassmere which instructs lorries, coaches and cars towing caravans not to follow their statnav device’s instructions.

Apparently satnav devices are advising drivers to use a narrow and steep lane which simply isn’t appropriate for these types of vehicle.

This is not a new issue. When satnav devices were in their infancy I was a very keen reviewer. For a good few years I saw just about everything that launched both as a PND (Personal Navigation Device for use in a vehicle), and as software for mobile phones and, in even earlier times, for laptop computers too (I remember Autoroute before it was bought by Microsoft).

Way back then, satnav devices consistently told me that an access road to some garages near my house was a proper road for driving along. I knew the road was not appropriate for driving on, but the mapping data the satnav devices used did not. And the Econav 480 still marks this as a proper road.

Now, when people encounter these kinds of problems they may or may not have difficulty with their trip. But they will almost inevitably blame the satnav device vendor for mapping issues. In fact mapping data usually comes from one of two companies, Tele Atlas and Navteq. The satnav device vendor obtains the data and integrates it into their own software.

So who is responsible for the poor or inaccurate map data that gives rise to inappropriate routing? The satnav vendor because ultimately they sell you the product, or the mapping data provider because they collect the data in the first place? Or both? And why does the process of updating take so long?

A key part of the problem is that mapping vendors seem keen to add new features to their maps – including new roads - but less keen to rectify errors in existing data. Which leaves the transport authorities trying to deal with the issues and help drivers avoid problems.

I’m a big believer in reducing sinage and street clutter of all kinds, and clearly the erection of signs aimed specifically at satnav users isn’t going to further that aim. It is also true that the cost of producing and erecting signs is ultimately born by the taxpayer.

And what of the driver who gets into difficulties because they did what their satnav told them to do? It is all too easy to say ‘they should have read a map’. Yes, I think knowing how to read a map and being prepared for your trip by knowing where you are headed is preferable to just tapping at a screen and setting off. But it is not realistic to expect drivers to trace every part of a suggested route for pitfalls before they set out.

Satnav manufacturers really do need to start taking more responsibility for the quality of the data they present to us. And that means they need to put pressure on their data providers. That pressure can come from many quarters, and the buying public is powerful source.

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