Letter From The UK: Living Off The Map

Here in the United Kingdom, we have a great and venerable institution known as the Ordnance Survey. It is the national mapping agency for Great Britain and is one of the world’s largest producers of maps. We’ve no need for a Lewis or a Clark here; our maps are so detailed it is said that if a person stands still for long enough, he or she will appear on an OS map as, say, a place of interest or a high point.

The OS makes maps of exquisite detail and accuracy. To get around the country you need nothing more.

At least, that’s how it used to be.

The Lost Road Atlas

In a land as vast and unknowable as the United States, I am prepared to bet that, just like in the UK, somewhere in the bowels of your car or your barn, there may be such a symbol of the great days of true motoring. Hidden away like the Dead Sea Scrolls at the back of your trunk, or under the back seat, you might well discover a dog-eared paper road atlas.

Technophobes will be familiar with this archaic form of direction finding, often used with limited or varied success by your father back in the day when the family vacation by automobile was something of an exciting and mysterious lottery.

Technophiles will not understand this reliance on map reading skills when there is a perfectly adequate device on the dashboard ready to do all the hard work for you. The automotive satellite navigation system or GPS – like sliced bread, the Ford Mustang, and Penelope Cruz – has been one of the great inventions of the world. They have never been cheaper or better featured. They are programmable and settings can be altered to suit. How can something so small be so clever?

Well, that’s the official line, but there’s an unspoken issue.

HondaLink debuted on the 2013 Honda Accord and connects drivers to thousands of cloud-based news, information, and media feeds from around the world. It’s one of many similar systems on the market today. “This is the next evolution of the connected car and the connected customer,” said Charles Koch, American Honda Manager of New Business Development in 2012. Photo: Honda North America.

Not As Infallible As We Think

Here’s an example: Once, when being forced-marched by my wife on a health inducing walk in hilly countryside (“Keep up! It’s good for you!”), I came across a nonplussed German motorist driving up an ancient track previously only used by livestock.

Being a man, he squarely blamed his GPS and herein lies the problem. The fact he was so far off the proper roads, it had never occurred to him until that point that something was obviously amiss, like having his Mercedes-Benz surrounded by intrigued sheep.

Sometimes in this country, we hear about the occasional vast Euro-truck becoming becalmed in quaint, quintessentially English villages because the device directed the driver down a narrow country lane, and he or she blindly obliged with the inevitable result.

Sat-nav’s are great but they are not infallible.

They are only as intelligent as their drivers. Despite the fact the chosen route is clearly unsuitable, they follow it anyway. Simply turning around and forcing the device to recalculate would probably solve the issue.

Photo: Dariusz Sankowski.

With Age Comes Knowledge

This is why just about half of the UK’s experienced drivers still, in this technological age, prefer to use maps, I recently heard. Real map-reading is a disappearing skill (which should, like compass use, be taught in schools) but most motorists can understand a basic road map once they’ve got it the right way up.

Older drivers with more than twenty-five years of motoring under their belts prefer to stick with maps; at least according to a national survey from a while back. As mentioned above, they mistrust some of the GPS intentions but what they hate most is the constant babble of instructions. Nobody likes being told repeatedly to do the same thing.

It’s irksome.

The survey mentions that only around half of respondents owned any form of satellite navigation at all, whether portable or built-in. That’s a surprise. We are led by promotions and advertising to believe the very latest thing is indispensable to our lives, and yet here we are still relying on ancient texts to move about the country.

In 2011, State Farm Insurance found that 52 percent of drivers reported owning a smartphone, and by 2014 that number had grown to 80 percent. The greatest increases in smartphone ownership are among adults age 40 and older. Photo: Foundry Co.

Journey Versus Destination

Many people have no problem with sat-navs. If kept up to date, they can guide drivers through complex and hitherto unknown and labyrinthine one way systems; they can place a car within ten meters of the required destination whilst avoiding ferries and traffic snarl-ups. What’s not to like? On the other hand, it is quite nice to know that some things never change. Maps, after all, bring out the pioneer spirit in motorists.

They can take married couples to distant, lonely parking lots for heated spousal debates about the innate inability of women to read maps and, conversely, about the driving ability, heritage, and general manliness of the fellow behind the wheel. There is something special about a compass and a map just as in olden times. (It is a well-known historical fact that Lewis and Clark declined GPS services in favor of a DIY approach, for example).

The more detail on the map the better.

They can bring hidden places to the fore and suggest anything is possible to the inquiring mind. New friends could be made at obscure crossroads. Perhaps car makers would do well to heed this and start offering a full set of well-surveyed maps, a compass, and a “how-to read coordinates” guide as an alternative option.

It’s a thought.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

Cover Photo: Erika Wittlieb

About The Author

Formerly a cycling and mountain biking writer and photography lecturer,
Geoff lives in England and mostly writes about the world of cars and
motoring and life in general. A member of the UK’s Guild of Motoring
Writers, he now provides news, views, and opinions for various
automotive print and online publications. He is not easily pleased.

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