Sat-nav feels like state-of-the-art technology, but it's a century since the first auto-navigation device was invented and, says Joe Moran, there are fears such systems are starting to erode local knowledge.
A report presented recently to the US Congress warned that sat-nav - satellite navigation - systems could start to fail from next year as the US Air Force's satellites deteriorate. It is yet another episode in our long and fraught relationship with in-car navigation - a phenomenon that is more ancient than you might think.
Today's sat-navs are really a number of older inventions cobbled together. In fact, mechanical in-car navigation stretches back further than most people would think - 100 years to be precise.
'If only you'd bought the Jones Live-Map'
The earliest in-car navigation system was the Jones Live-Map, patented as early as 1909. It was a turntable with a pointer on which the driver placed paper disks for individual routes and it measured distance and direction through a cable connected to the front wheels. On early boneshaker cars and bumpy roads, with no opportunity for mid-course corrections, it must have been next to useless.
If the Jones Live-Map had raised expectations among those seeking a reliable resolution to the in-car tensions between harassed driver and hapless navigator, they were to be disappointed. Over the next few decades, car manufacturers experimented with various Heath Robinson-like contraptions to guide drivers, some of which even promised to warn them about road conditions, like rough surfaces and police speed traps. But all of them were basically variations on the Jones-Live Map and about as accurate in giving directions.
It was 1981 before the next significant advance in mechanical navigation - Honda's Electro Gyrocator, fitted as an optional extra on its Accord model.
The Gyrocator was the first computerised in-car navigation system. Developed in Japan, it was like the Jones Live-Map - a solid-state system that could not respond to the changing narrative of the drive. So if you went wrong the errors soon stacked up and, unlike a broken watch, it would not even be right some of the time.
A British first
However, unbeknown to most motorists, the technology for a real-time system already existed. The US Defense Department had developed GPS (global positioning by satellite) in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, but it wasn't until the 1980s that President Reagan made it available for civilian use.
Among new developments, 3-D buildings
The other technological piece of the sat-nav jigsaw was digital mapping, which was pioneered by a tiny British firm, NextBase, which grew out of a circle of friends who met as teenagers, programming some of the earliest home PCs at a school holiday computer camp in Northampton.
In 1988, working from a friend's spare bedroom in the Surrey stockbroker suburb of Esher, they created the AutoRoute journey planner, a complete digital road map of Britain.
The technology for sat-nav, in other words, was around for several years before it was developed. All these different inventions simply needed to be brought together.
This suggests that the growth of sat-nav is not just about the advance of technology. It speaks to our contemporary anxieties and preoccupations about the road. More roads and better cars mean we can travel further, and so the risk of getting lost is all the greater.
Britain's roads are also an increasingly bewildering place to navigate - a maze of spaghetti junctions, elevated roundabouts and coned-off contraflows.
Take the left vortex
The British road system is no longer known by its epic cross-country routes - the M1, when it opened 50 years ago, was known as "the London-Yorkshire motorway". It is known by its pinch-points like Staples Corner (at the very southern end) and the Lofthouse interchange (where the M1 meets the M62), mentioned daily on radio traffic reports as vortices from which none can escape.
No sooner is it helping us than it's haunting us
The motorways that once carried hopes of uniting the nation now evoke images of eternal circularity, encapsulated in those urban myths about foreign tourists (or confused pensioners, or naive northerners) who drive round the M25 for days in the mistaken belief that it is the M1.
Sat-nav clearly suits an era which has given up on understanding the roads as a coherent, logical system - an era in which map-reading may be going the way of obsolete skills like calligraphy and roof-thatching.
Perhaps that is why sat-nav devices are branded things like Road Angel and Time Traveller, presenting themselves not as scientific cartographers, but as magicians and soothsayers, guiding you through the maze of our road system by psychic intuition. Sat-nav is a seductive mixture of science and mystery, perfectly attuned to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in the maddening twists and turns of the British road system.
However, sat-nav still seems to make us uneasy. Many drivers, for example, dislike the voice prompts that say "take the first left" or "take the second exit". Most speech synthesisers use female voices because they are easier to distinguish from engine noise and road rumble - and British sat-navs have rather clipped, head-girlish accents.
Destroying local knowledge
Two of the early sat-nav voices were Susan Skipper, who appeared as Nigel Havers' posh girlfriend in the 1980s sitcom Don't Wait Up; and Eve Karpf, who voice-dubbed the famous line in the Ferrero Rocher commercial ("Monsieur, with these Rocher, you're really spoiling us").
Early voice of satnav - Susan Skipper
Men in particular seem to recoil from being given digital instructions, and read the satnav woman's pregnant pauses, or her curt phrases like "make a legal U-turn" and "recalculating the route", as stubborn or bossy. Of course, they are reading too much into it. Sat-nav is just a dumb computer, obeying its algorithms.
We still don't quite trust the electronic voice to get us where we want to go. Since before even the arrival of the car, people have worried that maps sever us from real places, render the world untouchable, reduce it to a bare outline of Cartesian lines and intersections. Sat-nav feeds into this long-held fear that the cold-blooded modern world is destroying local knowledge, that roads no longer lead to real places but around and through them.
You can sense it in all those fearful newspaper headlines about motorists guided by their sat-navs to the edges of cliffs or deposited in village ponds. We may have grown to rely on in-car navigation, but it will be a long while before we learn to love it.
Joe Moran's book On Roads: A Hidden History has just been published by Profile. He also keeps a blog (see Internet Links, above, right).
Below is a selection of your comments.
I ignore my sat-navs instructions so many times on a journey that I'm surprised that some wag of a programmer at the manufacturers of these little boxes hasn't programmed them to come out with sarcastic comments after a certain number of missed commands such as "I don't know why I bother sometimes" or "Are you listening to anything I tell you?" etc. etc. It would remind me of having my wife in the car then.
Charlie G, London
Sat-navs cannot possibly replace local knowledge because they are never entirely 100% up to date. I find sat-nav to be very useful, but you still need to keep your wits about you.
Sarah, Birmingham, UK
Sat-nav? No - sad-nav. People have lost the ability to map read and to think for themselves. They place these devices on their windscreen so they can't see the road, and obey every instruction instantly without referring to their mirrors and without using an indicator. Sat-nav is a bigger threat to road safety than mobile phones, and we are going to end up with a generation who cannot function without electronic devices. Recently a car stopped to ask me directions and the driver said his sat-nav had stopped working. He wanted to get to Blackpool - 60 miles away and signposted on the Motorway he had just left to ask directions.
Rick Hough, Knutsford
Technology moves ahead because people WANT it to. Raving against the machine is both futile and idiotic.
Gary Connor, Modesto, CA
Just another gadget that discourages us using our common sense. We are becoming like our cousins across the pond: more interested in a predicted representation rather than real-time actuality. Speak to someone local and ask them the way.
Richard Gillies, Perth, Scotland UK
Routine use of sat-nav is breeding a generation of clueless numpties who don't know which way is north, south, east or west, and who trust a disembodied voice rather than the evidence of their own eyes. In Somerset we routinely have larger 4x4s, vans and trucks getting stuck in floods or between hedgerows, looking for short cuts that no sensible local would attempt. These systems should come with a compulsory exam to screen out the worse sort of mindless idiots, and ways should be found to turn off certain routes for commercial traffic and vehicles larger than an average car.
I live on a tight corner down a very narrow lane. My house has been damaged at least 10 times in the last three years by delivery vehicles blindly obeying sat-nav that doesn't seem to take account of the mismatch between large vehicles and narrow roads. But THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO. Please pass my details on to all the sat-nav makers.
Simon Hare, Weybridge, Surrey
I love motoring around the world and map reading I always buy very detailed maps and go down the B roads and find places of interest. But since using my GPS set on shortest rout I have come across even more interesting places and when you are lost in a strange City the GPS is great to guide you out but I still love a good map and you cannot totally rely on the GPS the map is not dead yet.
John Charlson, Anderton, Lancashire, England
I work for myself and cover the 3 rural counties of Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. You cannot drive and read maps at the same time. Sat-av enables me to go between jobs so much quicker than before. Sat-av is a god-send and it gets me to Cambridgeshire and around Birmingham, with no problems whatsoever. You also change the "home" when on holiday, so you can go anywhere and get home again, without worrying about getting lost. I have no regrets AT ALL, in consigning my maps to the bin, though a general map is good to get an idea where you will go through. One improvement though in rural Wales is to put a house name in and it takes you there as a postcode could cover a very large area and most houses in rural areas seem to have house names, but often don't have a name plate on the property. Sat-av is as good an invention as the internet.
Andrew Lye, Johnston, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire