Over two years ago, Google Maps added bicycling navigation directions to the application for Android smartphones. At first it was pretty buggy, and one of the complaints was it generated more automobile routes than bicycling routes. For that reason, I put off testing it and it just fell off my to-do radar. I used Google Maps in the car the other day, spotted the Maps bicycle button on my new Droid phone, and made a point to check it out.
I’ve never really been a fan of disembodied, interactive voices coming from some electronic gadget. It’s not that I believe there is some Ghost in the Machine, but rather because I know it is merely a programmed voice. Since it is not a real person, I can’t argue with it or question why it thinks I should do one thing over another.
I have no problem with a non-interactive voice coming from some device: almost thirty years ago I jumped into a buddy’s Nissan 300ZX sports car, left the door open, and was surprised and delighted to hear a sexy female voice say, “Yoh doh is ajah!”
Okay, okay, so, I admit I’m not being totally honest. There is an adolescent, prurient part of me which insists that the obscenely rich nerds at Google — where even the janitors check their stock options twice a day — have found a way to trap the essence of thousands of beautiful women inside the electronic bowels of their data center, where they are forced to guide us Baby Boomer Dirty Old Men around town. Kinda like a cross between Tron and the Playboy Mansion Slave Bunnies! I’ve got a noble, knight-on-shining-steed reason to check out Google Maps: maybe I can rescue some of the Google Gals!
My wife has made me point man for finding a new dinette set. I got my bike ready, tapped in a search for “furniture” and when the results popped up I hit the little “Places for furniture near” me map field. A bunch of stores within a five mile radius popped up in Maps. I saw one about three miles away; the name of it was really familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. I punched the little red Places icon and a Google search page popped up with the store information. I selected “Directions” and my phone screen displayed the Directions page. I made sure the little bicycle rider icon was selected, and pressed the NAVIGATION button at the bottom of the screen.
Immediately, one of the Google Slave Girls told me “GPS signal lost!” Aha! This confirmed my belief that I was on the right track. Not about using Maps to locate a business, but about it being populated by Sexy Serfs. I live in one of the top ten, biggest and most high tech cities in the U.S. If I lose a GPS signal, it can only be because some malevolent force is intervening! I would need to disconnect immediately to throw the Evil Internet Dogs off the scent!
I reset my phone, entered the same information into Maps, and this time the Woman in Bondage told me to head south and turn right on a particular street. I tried to place her accent. Midwestern U.S. maybe? Maybe the Google Master Control Program has put special collars on ALL of the Thrall Maidens to make them speak in exactly the same, robotic way.
I put my phone into my Revelate Tangle frame bag, zipped it almost all the way up, and followed those first instructions. When I arrived at the indicated street, the muffled voice of my guide repeated her instruction to turn right. I felt like we were fellow prisoners in a great, high tech detention facility; forced to communicate through holes we’d dug through the walls with our dinner spoons. For some reason, I just KNEW she looked like the Star Trek Drill Thrall Shanah!
Shanah told me to continue on this road for a half mile. “Yes, yes! I’m on my way!” I said, breathlessly (I was pedaling pretty hard). My bike computer read almost exactly 0.5 miles when she said “In 600 feet, turn right onto north …” What? Oh, okay. Obviously, the training for the Electronic Escorts included instruction on how to play “hard to get.”
I played along, turned right and was told to continue another half mile. Again I rode almost exactly that distance and, just before a passing truck drowned out her voice, Shanah told me that in 600 feet I should turn left onto a busy arterial street. I crossed the road when the light changed and stopped. I wanted to be able to hear her cries … er … instructions when I made the turn, so I waited until the light changed and the traffic had cleared before turning left and riding on.
Shanah told me to continue west, and in another half mile she said “Your destination is on the right.” The only thing on my right was a little set of apartments. I pulled my Droid out of the frame bag and saw a Google Map street view of those apartments. What could have gone wrong? The Google Gal had led me astray! Were the Google Nerds alert to my attempt to find their Pathfinding Playmates? I looked around for any sign of a black SUV occupied by guys in dark suits and sunglasses. Seeing nothing, I turned back to my Droid and closed out the Navigation app.
Then it hit me: I think I know where that store is! I pointed my bike back east, rode the half mile back to the intersection, continued on another half mile … and there it was. The Map app had somehow zigged when it should have zagged, showing the store location as almost exactly one mile west of where it should have been.
Google Maps has a help feature which allows you to Report Incorrect Map Data. I was tempted to key in the information on my phone, but I remembered the quote by Captain Rex Kramer in the Airplane! movie: “No! That’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do!” I scanned the skies for a black helicopter. Seeing nothing, I shut off my phone and headed home. I would try this again tomorrow.
The next day, I rolled my bike onto the front porch in the early morning, got out my phone and typed in the navigation directions for a nearby, favorite coffee shop. I also plugged a set of earbuds into my phone, and hung one of the earpieces in my left ear; leaving my right ear free to listen to the traffic around me.
My usual route to this particular store takes me through my own, quiet neighborhood streets — zigzagging northeast — but Shanah told me to head south about a block and then head east. So, one of two things was happening: either she had been instructed to guide me into the waiting arms of some well-dressed thugs who would wipe my memory, or the Google routes still put automobile directions above bicycle directions.
I ignored her and set out on my usual path. Shanah told me to turn around once, but about a block later she relented and allowed me to follow my normal route for a while. Then, once again, as I crossed over a busy street into another neighborhood, she said I should turn north to follow a busy road. This process repeated itself all the way to the java joint: I would continue on safe roads for bicycles, while Shanah would tell me to back track to a highway infested with automobiles.
It got even stranger late in the journey. Traveling east on a busy road (because I had no other option), I finally was able to veer right to go southeast through a group of parking lots; this is sort of a “back door” to the restaurant. Shanah seemed confused, and kept telling me to continue east on the motorist dominated arterial I had just left. Only as I was pulling up to my favorite outside table did she give up and tell me “You have arrived.”
As I enjoyed a large cup of hot, black, Morning Elixir, I contemplated what I had learned:
- Google Maps still will put you at risk by suggesting you ride with Three-Ton, Dinosaur Fossil Powered Behemoths of the Asphalt.
- Even in a city where every-other palm tree is a disguised cell phone tower, you can still lose the GPS signal and, in the words of Star Trek’s Scotty, be “Lost, forever lost!”
- You need a Bluetooth earpiece, or at least one earbud, to hear the Google Sirens above the traffic; unlike the Star Trek communicators, you cannot hear what she is saying as the Motorized Beasts bear down on you.
- There are still flaws with where Google Maps thinks things are, but there are ways you can report this. (Now, it could be that it really does know, but wants to lead you to a secluded spot where — if you are an attractive young woman — it can capture you for it’s own, nefarious purposes. If you wind up strapped to a hospital gurney with a dripping hypodermic needle being guided, slowly, toward your neck by a robotic arm … don’t blame me!)
- I think I write great Space Opera!