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Home » Opinion | Why Driving Apps Drive You Crazy

Opinion | Why Driving Apps Drive You Crazy

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On my way to Kennedy International Airport, I grip the wheel tightly, swerving across three lanes of expressway traffic at 50 miles per hour to reach the exit. Minutes later, still shaken from my move, I hear a cheerful, disembodied voice instructing me to re-enter the expressway I had just exited.

I curse at my phone.

If you use a navigation app, you probably have felt helpless anger when your stupid phone endangers your life, and the lives of all the drivers around you, to potentially shave a minute or two from your drive time. Or maybe it’s stuck you on an ugly freeway when a glorious, ocean-hugging alternative lies a few miles away. Or maybe it’s trapped you on a route with no four-way stops, ignoring a less stressful solution that doesn’t leave you worried about a car barreling out of nowhere.

For all the discussion of the many extraordinary ways algorithms have changed our society and our lives, one of the most impactful, and most infuriating, often escapes notice. Dominated by a couple of enormously powerful tech monopolists that have better things to worry about, our leading online mapping systems from Google and Apple are not nearly as good as they could be.

You may have heard the extreme stories, such as when navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps apparently steered drivers into lakes and onto impassable dirt roads, or when jurisdictions beg Waze to stop dumping traffic onto their residential streets. But the reality is these apps affect us, our roads and our communities every minute of the day. Primarily programmed to find the fastest route, they endanger and infuriate us on a remarkably regular basis.

Worse, the promised time savings are often a mirage. There are so many elements included in calculating a route that the estimated time is always a guess. Yet who among us has not seen her estimated arrival time change several times while en route?

These products should be calibrated with greater acknowledgment of the uncertainties involved in predicting unexpected slowdowns and road closures. I am firmly of the belief — which I cannot prove, as our tech overlords refuse to share data with us — that the algorithms are often optimizing for time savings that are wider than their margin of error.

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