We’ve all been sent down narrow country lanes and directed on to the wrong turnings by smartphone map apps and satnav systems. In the early days of the latter, there were cases of people taking epic trips – even into the wrong country.
More recently, smart phone apps were found to be sending people on to the wrong carriageway of motorways. Last week it was reported that the family of a North Carolina man is suing Google for negligence after he died from crashing into a creek below a collapsed bridge – directed to it, allegedly, by Google maps.
All smartphone apps combine bespoke or third-party cartographical data with GPS – the US-owned satellite-based utility that locates coastlines, cars, houses, missile targets and everything else on the planet. At ground level, some apps are updated in real time because drivers and pedestrians allow themselves to be shadowed. When a traffic jam forms, the data shows cars aren’t moving, and the road turns orange or red.
But, even with all this technology and data, things go wrong. A major, very human pitfall of relying on a smartphone app or satnav is that drivers stop looking and, arguably, stop thinking. Seduced by the reassuring intonation of the humanoid navigator, we start to trust every suggestion. But roadworks can appear overnight. Night works can run over. Floods can and do happen.
Over reliance on fast-evolving technologies is a problem in many areas of contemporary life. It rarely leads to the kinds of tragic outcome that befell the North Carolina driver, but roads are only as safe as the drivers and cars that use them – and no app, bot or AI is a substitute for local knowledge and putting safety first.
Which app is best for you?
Like Google’s search engine, the company’s Maps (along with Google Earth and Street View) has become the standard app because it’s been around the longest – and because it’s on the whole reliable and easy to use. Google will usually get you where you want to be, but its own forums are full of complaints from users about being sent the wrong way.
When was it launched? 2005
What’s its USP? Almost two decades of honed data.
How easy is it to use? We’re all pretty used to it now.
Best for? Big, long A to B drives, especially on motorways and A-roads – when a range of routes is usually suggested.
Avoid if... you’re looking for a specific entrance to, say, a railway station or a shop.
With its sleek maps, clear tabs and buttons and useful links to Wikipedia and other good third-party sources, Apple Maps is the main rival to Google. At its “rough” launch just over a decade ago, the platform was derided for being inaccurate but it has improved a lot in recent years. Apple-specific features include indoor maps for public places like airports, Flyover for a drone-like view of major landmarks and cities, and it is linked to Siri for hands-free control.
When was it launched? 2012
What’s its USP? Good-looking, minimalist maps; Apple has always been about design.
How easy is it to use? Smooth as an iPad screen, though 3D is flat-looking.
Best for? Hands-free interaction on the road.
Avoid if... you’re an Android-user, as it isn’t available (and thirty-party interfaces are a faff).
This community-driven navigation app, created by an Israeli company, uses real-time data from users to provide the best route to a destination, taking into account accidents, traffic jams, speed traps, construction, and other obstacles. Users can store a list of friends on the app so that they can keep track of each other on a trip or spot a friend in the vicinity. Waze was built assuming a mobile connection. For all aspects of Waze to operate properly, you have to have an active data connection on your device.
When was it launched? 2008 (bought by Google in 2013).
What’s its USP? Users can report on accidents, police traps, detours and road closures.
How easy is it to use? It’s very user-friendly.
Best for? Social media junkies.
Avoid if... you like driving quietly, alone. Friends appear on screen, points ding as they accumulate and drive-by incidents ask to be reported.
The credo at this London-based firm is that “street addresses aren’t accurate enough to specify precise locations, such as building entrances, and don’t exist for parks and many rural areas. This makes it hard to find places and prevents people from describing exactly where help is needed in an emergency.” The app’s programmers (there’s also a website) have divided the world in three-metre squares and given each one a simple three-word name – randomly generated by a machine. So the gate on a local farm could be “Yesterday.Waste.Believer” and a very small village green could be “Chaos.Balloon.Superb”.
When was it launched? 2013
What’s its USP? Idiot-proof (or idiot-making) global location finder using three unique words.
How easy is it to use? Not particularly useful if you know where you want to go.
Best for? Companies that want a quick way of communicating a hard-to-find site to clients.
Avoid if... you prefer to speak human. Don’t share your home’s three words online unless you want the information out there.
Navigation rating: 2
OS maps were originally designed for military purposes, but are now the default navigational tool of ramblers, mountaineers and national park rangers. In 2016, an overhaul added art galleries, skate parks, solar farms and kite surfing. The app version contains suggested walks and runs, cycle routes and places to paddle a canoe. It’s good-looking and fairly easy to use, but eats up phone battery power rather fast. App access comes with purchased print maps or via a subscription.
When was it launched? The app was born in 2016; OS paper maps were launched in 1791.
What’s its USP? Huge amounts of topographic detail, including piles of stones and burial mounds.
How easy is it to use? Easy to read, but the app is more useful as a back-up support for a walk; the proper waterproofed hard-copy maps are best for serious exploration (especially in fog).
Best for? Hiking in Britain and sharing any walks you have discovered.
Avoid if... you are a petrolhead who shuns the outdoors.
Navigation rating: 4/5