Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Right Direction

Want to develop a better mouse trap? Easy. Just go to war.
The billions spent on military research and development in this country not only results in ever more sophisticated weaponry, it also provides us — sometimes accidentally — with consumer products that we might not have if we weren’t engaged in smiting our enemies.
We wrote recently about drones, those pilotless search and destroy aircraft that have been used extensively in the Middle East. Kinder and gentler versions are now in production that will be used to deliver everything from packages to pizza.
Thanks to the military, we also enjoy cargo pants, the brainchild of the British; duct tape, which was originally intended to seal ammunition cases; the microwave oven, discovered in researching radar; the Jeep, which, during World War II, did not come equipped with a leather-wrapped steering wheel; jet engines; digital photography; and, of course, the Internet.
We mention all this because we are celebrating the anniversary of another military invention that we would be lost without.
Let’s hear it for the Global Positioning System.
We have come a long way since we fumbled through the glove compartment to find an Auto Club map that, once unfolded, could never be folded correctly again.
Or lugged out a Thomas Brothers guide that left us dazed and confused as we tried to follow a route from one page to another.
Now, 25 years after the launching of the first GPS satellites, we can use our car’s navigation system or our smart phones to guide us to our destination.
And it works just great. With a few exceptions:
One blogger reported that if you went to one GPS service and requested a route from Trondheim, Norway to Haugesund, Norway it gave you the direct route between the two cities, a distance of about 476 miles.
But if you reversed the cities and asked for directions from Haugesund to Tronheim, it told you to take the ferry to Scotland, drive to London and take the Chunnel to France, and then drive through France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden to get back to Trondheim.
It must be the scenic route.
Meanwhile, in Australia, three Japanese tourists decided to take a day trip to North Stradbroke Island, according to news reports. They trustingly followed their GPS system’s instructions to drive directly through Moreton Bay to the island, forgoing real roads.
The students were able to navigate the rented Hyundai about 50 yards into the bay before they realized they would be unable to drive farther.
They attempted to turn around, but the incoming tide forced them to leave the vehicle behind.
One of they three defended their decision to attempt the drive, saying, “[the GPS] told us we could drive there.”
Apparently, they haven’t learned to program common sense into these devices yet.
A pizza delivery driver in Michigan, listening to his GPS, made a wrong turn, landed on some railroad tracks and lost his car to an oncoming passenger train. Fortunately, the driver and the pizzas escaped unharmed.
A group of California tourists became lost in Utah at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They attempted to use a GPS to plot their route to the Grand Canyon but the GPS route they took included a series of rough roads that ended in cliffs. The group eventually was led back to safety with the help of sheriff’s deputies.
The first GPS system I ever saw was stuck to the dashboard of a friend’s SUV. He was a bit of a rascal so he would make wrong turns on purpose, then chuckle as the otherwise soothing female voice that gave directions grew annoyed. But he had nothing on German drivers. BMW had to recall early GPS systems in its autos because German men refused to take directions from a female voice.
My first GPS system, a portable unit, refused to recognize the 210 Freeway. On a trip from Glendale to Big Bear one weekend, it implored to me to exit on every offramp I passed and take surface streets to the 10 Freeway. I ended up unplugging it and throwing it in the back seat.
These days, of course, the GPS system is a commonplace tool for the traveling public. But apparently, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
GPS-like devices are already in development that will provide turn-by-turn directions in large indoor spaces such as airports, museums, schools and hospitals. One is already in use in New York City where it provides a map of all 11 levels of Macy’s iconic Herald Square store.
The inventor of the GPS believes its future is in self-driving cars.
“I think (the future) leads to robotic cars. I think there will come a time when you go down the highway and you don’t have to have your hand on the steering wheel at all,” Bradford Parkinson told CNN. “It’ll be a combination of GPS, radar and other sensors.”
Which would take the device from saving time to saving lives.

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