Tim Keen

Motor (Australia) - - REAR VIEW -


EV­ERY­ONE LAUGHS AT re­ports of cred­u­lous goons who blindly fol­low di­rec­tions from their GPS and drive into lakes or train tun­nels. But I re­cently found there’s an even worse fate that can be­fall the hap­less GPS acolyte. I was driv­ing in the US when the Google-pow­ered GPS on my An­droid phone di­rected me off the free­way onto a rut­ted side road that was prob­a­bly last repaved back when the Atari 2600 was the pin­na­cle of tech­nol­ogy. Blithely, per­haps id­i­ot­i­cally, I fol­lowed, fig­ur­ing it was some sort of Palo Alto-ap­proved short­cut.

About two klicks down the side road, I spy a Ram 2500 com­ing to­wards me. No prob­lem – the road was eas­ily wide enough for us to pass, even for a mod­ern Ram pickup, which is only marginally smaller than a depart­ment store – ex­cept that about 50 me­tres out, the guy swerved across the road onto a col­li­sion course with me. De­lib­er­ately swerved – this wasn’t the idle lane-drift of an al­falfa farmer play­ing Candy Crush on his steer­ing wheel, this was the hun­gry lunge of a crazed red­neck who has watched Death Proof too many times.

Thank­fully, in the al­falfa-sprout­ing heart of nowhere, even the crappy side roads have wide dirt shoul­ders, and I had room to dodge around the, ah, Dodge, be­fore it drop-kicked my own engine block into my face.

My pulse rate went from rest­ing 60s to a jackrab­bit­ing frenzy, as if I’d just spot­ted an In-N-Out restau­rant with­out a queue. And I barely had time to shout some­thing a bit blue when I saw in the rear view: the Red­neck Kamikaze Killer was try­ing to pull a three-point turn. Now, the dirt shoul­der was plenty roomy enough to swerve my lit­tle Ford on, or even raise quar­ter horses, but it was a bit tight for the My­ers­sized Ram.

A man made of sterner stuff – or who has watched De­liv­er­ance fewer times – than I, might have stopped and con­fronted the ruf­fian, and schooled him in the finer points of what we sim­ple city folk like to call “not mur­der­ing peo­ple”. Not me. I floored it, and with Google as my co-pi­lot… al­most drove down a dead-end dirt track.

The GPS on my phone was clearly telling me to go straight ahead, even as the road mor­phed from rut­ted coarse chip into dirt, but thanks to the lo­cal roads depart­ment – who had both­ered to put up a “NO OUT­LET” sign – I chan­nelled my in­ner Pete Town­shend: won’t get fooled again. I hooked a turn onto an­other side road, and while the Google lady splut­tered in­dig­nantly about hav­ing to re-route, I fanged it back to the main drag and the safety of num­bers.

If I had fol­lowed the Google di­rec­tions, and stop­pered my­self in a dead-end road – or if the dead-end hadn’t been sign-posted – then the Psy­cho Pickup Rip­per would have had time to com­plete his seven-point turn, and I’d cur­rently be fer­til­is­ing some­one’s al­falfa, or pos­si­bly chained up and wear­ing a ball-gag in some back­woods trac­tor shed.

Now, just for the record, I was driv­ing from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia to Yuma, Ari­zona. That’s the same Ari­zona where Uber has been op­er­at­ing self-driv­ing semi-trail­ers on the road for the past few months. A self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle is only as good as the map it’s fol­low­ing, and I’m here to tell you – barely – that the maps are still not all the way there.

“Uber’s maps are not the same as Google’s maps,” I hear a dis­tant car­tog­ra­phy nerd sniff, and that’s true – but Uber’s maps are the same ones that di­rected my Uber driver to ig­nore a “NO LEFT TURN” sign and dive through three lanes of traf­fic to make the on-ramp to the 101 in LA re­cently. Which he gamely did, bless him, although I don’t be­lieve a semi-trailer would have had as much luck.

So if you’re driv­ing in the ru­ral south-west some­day, and you have to choose be­tween be­ing stalked by self-driv­ing semis or get­ting off the free­way into the hunt­ing grounds of a crazed yokel high from smok­ing GMO al­falfa, you’ll get how I feel: we should have just stuck with pa­per maps and the Atari 2600.

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