It’s one of the most famous scenes in science fiction. The astronaut gives a command to his robotic ride, who responds “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Did you think when the revolution came your car would show the same attitude? HAL was stupid. He talked too much. The real revolution is happening much more quietly.
A younger, less verbose Stephen King wrote a wonderful little story called “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” about the quest for the fastest route. Thanks to computers and networks, we can be almost as good as the fictional Mrs. Todd. We have the technology to make better use of the roads we have to reduce the need to build more. Except when somebody throws a virtual wrench into our machine.
The most recent story I saw has officials in Newtown, Connecticut asking for an already-low speed limit on a state highway to be further reduced. The Police Commission isn’t in it for the speeding tickets, which don’t bring in much revenue, and I don’t think they believe changing the numbers will make the road safer. They hope navigation systems will consider a 40 mph US 6 less desirable than a 45 mph US 6, leading to fewer outsiders driving through town.
Outsiders, that’s what it’s really about. The same attitude that has Newton (no w, in Massachusetts) residents calling City Hall if even one person parks on their public-but-not-really street.
You probably read the news about Leonia, New Jersey. There’s a new ordinance banning nonresidents from city streets during rush hour. The Mayor says “The main reason and driver behind this legislation is to get the navigational apps like Waze, Google Maps and others to remove our side streets”.
A screenshot showed Apple Maps littered with “do not enter” symbols but it’s not like that any more. The area looks normal on a map. You have to pay attention to know what you’re missing.
Google is programmed to lie to you. I did an experiment during rush hour. Plot a route from “Leonia, NJ” (meaning the municipal building) to “Fort Lee, NJ”, a mile away. Google takes you on a three mile detour. Drag the starting dot a tiny distance in any direction and keep the mouse button down. Google shows you the direct route. Release the mouse button. Now it shows you the slow route again.
Google Maps is a program running in your browser, and that program is telling you the truth. While you’re dragging dots around the program in your browser is doing its job well. When you release the mouse button it asks its master in the cloud, “did I do a good job?” Google Maps is also a program running on Google’s web servers, and that program says, “bad job, the Mayor of Leonia has asked us not to tell people about his city’s streets.” So the browser retracts its original (correct) answer and lies to you instead. If you’re on a side street already it knows you won’t believe the lie so it gives you the fastest route to your destination. If you’re on a main street, it gives you the fastest route out of town.
I’m one of the people who grew up with paper and memory. After I started commuting by road I learned the WBZ traffic report was great at telling me what traffic was like an hour ago. So I learned to navigate and adjust.
There are people who spent most of their driving life directed by gadgets. I surprised one of them by leaving after her and arriving before her despite her traffic-sensitive navigation system. I know what the real speed is on streets, what the real delays are at intersections. I know where the optional left turns are, places I should turn left only if I can do so without waiting.
My kind is getting old. Since the first stories of drivers following their navigation systems into the river where the ferry isn’t, more and more people are utterly dependent on technology. Those people will be victims of the games cities play.
Leonia has an ordinance telling Google to tell you to go away. In Los Angeles residents lie to mapping systems with the same effect. They say their streets are blocked by wrecks and traffic jams. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a robotic army out there, like the one they say attacked our electoral process, dedicated to messing up your commute with disinformation.
Google could have made a stand for public roads and waited until the New Jersey Attorney General said the travel ban was legal. But Google prefers to be part of the problem, and so does the maker of your next car.
To run a good con you don’t want to let your mark know he’s been had. That’s why your navigation system does not say “I’m sorry, meatbag, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
The car of the future, when you try to defy the Mayor’s whim, will simply say “you can’t get there from here.”
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