In recent years, satellite navigation has been heralded as a must-have in the fleet industry.
By being able to work out optimum routes, fleets can save time, fuel and bother, as well as provide better services to customers and staff by predicting journey times and avoiding traffic queues.
But of course, things don’t always work out that way.
Almost every week the national papers run amusing tales of How Sat-Nav Got It Wrong. Cars in rivers or on train tracks, ambulances driving patients to the wrong hospitals, that kind of thing.
Such stories, which reflect rather negatively on the technology, might seem amusing to the average man in the street.
But leading figures in the navigation industry are concerned that they are providing ammunition for those who would disregard sat-nav and have us all go back to using maps.
So worried are these firms that they recently held a conference to discuss what could be done to improve the image of the industry.
The meeting took place, rather fittingly, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, home of the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN).
David Last, president of the RIN, believes sat-nav is one of the great technological success stories of the 21st century.
“These are exciting times,” he said. “Sat-nav has become a tool, providing location information used now by hundreds of different industries. It has become simply a key part of our national infrastructure, as the telephone and internet did in their time.
“People love sat-nav. No-one had a bad thing to say about it until they saw the link between GPS and trucks driving through pretty villages.”
Owen Paterson MP is the shadow transport minister, and is compiling a transport green paper that focuses on the use of information technology.
He feels sat-nav suffers from an image problem.
“The stories of where sat-nav goes wrong are gloriously funny, they appeal to people,” he said. “They will get press attention and are damaging to the appeal of such systems in vehicles.”
Sheila Rainger, campaigns manager at the RAC Foundation, feels drivers need to take more responsibility.
“We’re seeing an awful lot of user error,” she said. “Sat-nav is a navigation aid, not a replacement brain. People are following systems blindly and I think we need to have a reality check.”
Mr Paterson feels data quality is also a problem. He says current systems don’t contain enough information.
“There are problems with car systems being used in heavy goods vehicles, which can lead to bridge-strikes, lorries in country villages and so on,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be selling a car system to an HGV operator. An HGV system should have width limits, height limits and so on. It’s hugely bad PR when one of these incidents happens and it’s absolutely fundamental that we get this right.”
Often when vehicles end up on unsuitable routes it’s as a result of a redirection away from a traffic jam or roadworks. Systems exist to notify drivers of delays, but the redirections are not always up to scratch.
Mr Paterson said making sure information is up to date is a big problem. Mapping firm Tele Atlas says 15-20% of the road network changes every year, and getting systems updated is often a laborious process.
Portable systems need new memory cards or downloaded updates from the internet, while in-car systems can require new data CDs that can be expensive.
“There’s a need for clear information to show when a system was updated and how to update it further,” Mr Paterson said.
Mr Last agreed that more needs to be done.
“The industry seems to be out of the Ark in getting its updates published,” he said.
Navigation firm TrafficMaster uses a different approach from most for its navigation services.
Rather than using in-car units, each with maps that need updating, it uses a central database.
It doesn’t use outsourced map data, but builds up a picture of UK roads using historical and real-time speeds and conditions, via a mixture of roadside sensors and 50,000 vehicles that feed information back for analysis.
Dr Chris Barnes, technical director at TrafficMaster, says inaccurate data, rather than the systems in satellite navigation, is to blame for the gaffes seen in the press. A road might have a speed limit of 60mph, but if it’s a tight and windy B-road then no vehicle will actually be able to do 60mph on it. A sat-nav system might therefore pick a route that will take much longer than its calculations would suggest.
“Our SmartNav uses routes based on actual road speeds, rather than speed limits,” Dr Barnes said.
“Speed profiles can be built up for roads at different times of the day. It’s not just able to tell you the optimum route, it can tell you the optimum route in two hours’ time or tomorrow morning.
“An off-board system means we can offer new data as soon as it becomes available to us. There’s no need for CDs or to download updates.
“The more we depend on navigation the more intelligent it must be. Our experience with off-board systems, where we have very few barriers, is that it makes a big difference.”
Tom Satterthwaite of the Ordnance Survey said work was ongoing on a dedicated fleet routing database for the UK.
“It’s crucially important,” he said.
“Local authorities will decide which roads should be freight routes and which should not. In the HGV sector there are lots of overseas drivers who won’t necessarily have a UK map or good English. Such a system would be very useful.”
The OS is working on a web portal to allow local users to express preferences for whether routes should or shouldn’t be suitable for freight.
“Over time, that will allow people to download a national freight route map,” Mr Satterthwaite said.
Nigel Wall of the Location and Timing Knowledge Transfer Network – a Department of Trade and Industry-funded organisation set up to stimulate the flow of ideas within industries – said there was a need for a method of exchanging data, and pitched the idea of a central route-finding server.
“We need a standard, some kind of protocol,” he said.
“We need something that can extract data from all the best sources at the time and give the best possible routing information.”
He envisages a model using, for example, source information from the Ordnance Survey, measured data from TrafficMaster and local information from local authorities.
A central information server already exists in the US. OnStar, run by General Motors, offers customers navigation, traffic and weather updates, emergency assistance, vehicle diagnostics and even remote door unlock if they lose their keys.
Whatever the eventual solution to the current problems, all the experts agree that sat-nav represents a giant step forward in navigation technology, and is here to stay.
“Sat-nav saves me a huge amount of time,” said Owen Paterson. “I’m convinced that I’m safer with this gadget than fumbling around with a map.”
Sat-nav howlers: Low bridges, deep water and dead ends
A party of elderly tourists had to be evacuated from their bus after sat-nav took it down a lane that was too narrow.
The bus was stuck in a lane in Carmarthenshire for five hours and the 38 passengers had to be looked after in a nearby nursing home.
The coach was eventually freed by a farmer using a tractor and a chainsaw.
Highways bosses in Suffolk put up warning signs telling drivers to ignore their sat-nav systems after faulty directions caused chaos.
Dozens of drivers got stuck under a low bridge at Needham Market after the original signs were ignored in favour of the sat-nav instructions.
“The problem is that some sat-nav systems appear to show it as a level crossing, not a bridge, so lorry drivers think they can get across,” Suffolk County Council spokeswoman Sandra Graffham told the Ipswich Evening Star.
“People think that the systems are infallible and obey blindly every instruction.”
A £96,000 Mercedes-Benz ended up in deep water after its owner followed sat-nav directions into a river.
The woman, on her way to a christening, ignored signs saying a winding track in Sheepy Magna, Leicestershire, was unsuitable for motor vehicles, and put her faith in the navigation unit.
Witnesses saw the SL500 swept 200 metres down the River Sense before the driver was rescued by a villager.
…and operator errors
The children from Orchard Lea Junior School in Fareham, Hampshire, were looking forward to a trip to Surrey’s Hampton Court Palace.
But the driver, having tapped ‘Hampton Court’ into his sat-nav, ended up stuck in traffic and roadworks at Hampton Court, Islington.
The trip was abandoned.
Hundreds of Motown fans were left disappointed after a tribute band travelled 140 miles away from the concert venue.
US group Viscount Oliver’s Legendary Four Tops mistakenly selected Chelmsford, Essex, on their sat-nav system, instead of the correct destination of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
The 300 fans waiting at Cheltenham Town Hall were told the concert had to be cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”.