Making legal U-turns

May 1, 2008

It’s all about the journey, not the destination

Now I don’t want you to think that I believe there is a person inside those automobile GPS systems. You know what I mean: that digitized female voice that prompts you when and where to turn. My wife keeps reminding me of this when I talk back to my car’s unit, but still, I think I may have actually caused a nervous breakdown in the unit I was using in Germany.

Allow me to set the scene. Associate Publisher Laureen Belleville and I are driving a rental car from Stuttgart to a town near Ulm to work on a new magazine, Industrial Laser Europe (ILE), with our colleague ILE Editor-in-Chief Franz Gruber. The plan is simple: allow 90 minutes to arrive in time for lunch by driving Germany’s famed autobahns. Franz draws us a rudimentary map that even a child could follow.

For some reason Laureen is concerned about the drive. To assuage her apprehension, I have the rental agency, located at Stuttgart’s main train station, provide me with their Never Lost GPS unit. The agent programs the unit in English with the fastest route to Weißenhorn, where Franz’s office is located, and we’re ready to go.

With Laureen acting as navigator, I set out from the station parking lot following the GPS system prompts. It immediately has me making turns, which I obediently do. A series of messages begins to emanate from the GPS every time I make a turn, “Recalculating; when possible make a legal U-turn.” I try, but after being routed through residential neighborhoods and up private driveways, I give up and start making illegal U-turns. These maneuvers seem to panic the GPS voice, which has been getting exasperated with me (and me with her).

We were steadily getting farther from the station when all we were supposed to do was jog around a city block, then pick up a road leading to the autobahn that headed us toward Munich. By now Laureen is also losing confidence in the GPS and starts using some unladylike responses to the GPS constantly telling me to find a U-turn. Some 30 minutes later, instead of the 10 minutes it should have taken, we are routed onto a secondary highway that almost parallels the autobahn we were seeking. But at least we now see road signs leading us to Ulm.

The problem, however, is that the GPS, programmed for the fastest route, constantly tells me to turn off this highway, trying to redirect me to the autobahn, with more of those recalculating/U-turn messages, which I ignore. We pass through innumerable towns and villages that, while scenic, are slowing us down for our appointed lunch date. Meanwhile, the rerouting messages continue because we can’t shut the battery-operated GPS down.

Finally, in exasperation, I stop at a petrol station, consult a map, and figure a way to go cross-country to the autobahn, where we will follow the directions Franz drew for us. However, the detour is essentially a series of switchbacks over a mountain, a course that produces some unpleasant reactions with my companion. All the while the GPS voice keeps encouraging us to take legal U-turns. Some 90 minutes late, we arrive at Franz’ office. Both of us believe that the tone of the GPS voice had changed from accommodating to spiteful.

On the return to Stuttgart airport the next day, we follow Franz’s directions and arrive in record time. I swear I hear Laureen say, as she packs up the GPS at the rental return: “Stuff your U-turns, lady.”

For the record, I later find out the roads around the Stuttgart train station have been blocked to accommodate the building of a new station, thus completely baffling the GPS’s old map tracking system.

Click here to enlarge image

David A. Belforte
[email protected]

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