Events of the last few days have taught me how much care and psychology must go into choosing the voices that are used in modern GPS systems. I was in a situation a couple of days back where I found myself very late, in a foreign country and with the wrong maps, needing to get from A to B as fast as possible. Even if that did mean 500km and 7 hours.
The start point was the wrong end of the Frejus Tunnel, that links Italy and France. The end point was Luzern, in Switzerland, home of Pino, my great friend from Masters athletics, and his wife Barbara. I’d promised I’d be with them at about 6.30pm , but delays made that look more like 10.30pm, and only if it all went to plan. So, GPS, strut your stuff.
I find it mind-boggling even now, to think that I am using a piece of equipment on my motorbike that talks to satellites in space, and relays information to me through the voice of someone I know I can trust. Well, most of the time. That the little box I have with me can hold and interpret every twist, turn and road junction in the whole of France, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Austria and Germany is something even twenty years ago I would not have believed had you told me. And even those limitations are because I chose only to load those maps.
The voice (let’s call her Jane, because that’s what she calls herself) has become like that of a friend and counsellor I’ve never met, but one whose words are seldom to be taken lightly. Up to a point, Jane knows my travelling preferences. She never shares my sense of urgency and frustration at delays, contraflows, traffic lights, etc, but is a constant and necessary task-mistress as I travel. Especially when she knows routes I’d never even think of, if I could even spot them on a 1:400,000 scale map (that’s four real kilometres for every map centimetre). That’s even more telling when he map is sitting on the table back at home, having been forgotten in my packing.
Jane’s outward limitation is that she can only show me things in two dimensions. Thus, if a road climbs ever upwards or (later) downwards, she’s as likely just to show me a series of purple squiggles on screen, and a moving arrow. She’ll leave the rest to me, saving a slightly hectoring “Recalculating”, or (worse) “When possible, make a U-turn” for the times when pilot error prevails, or the roads have simply changed. The former happens a lot, the latter very seldom. However, like a track coach with a stopwatch, Jane knows how long every metre takes, up down and along, and how much remains.
After several epic mountain passes (Petit St Bernard, Grand St Bernard being only the last two), I had still failed to make my route before darkness fell. this was despite some heroic blatting along some Friday evening Swiss motorways. Thus, I needed to place total trust in Jane’s prior knowledge, to take me on a route that then wound its way across pitch black countryside. Never before has man/machine put so much utter trust in woman-voice/little grey plastic box. Sensation-wise, it did become like an arcade game. It needed my total concentration. The music that usually accompanies my travels went off. Jane reeled off for me a perfect succession of junctions, roundabout exits, bears-left, and keeps-right. The kilometres counted down inexorably, the hours crept by equally so. There were few other constants. The pain in my backside grew quite steadily, and my left hand occasionally seemed to have gone awol. For a small country, as I observed later, Switzerland can sometimes seem like a very big country.
And make it we did. Team effort. I’ll forgive Jane not knowing of the temporary closure of the very final road I needed to go down in Luzern. She did know another route, though. When I arrived, spot on when Jane had told me 7 hours earlier I’d be there, the malfunction of lesser technology (a microwave) had ruined supper. Thies meant that, dead on my feet or not, I was treated to a whistle-stop tour of Pino’s beloved Luzern, and a beer.
Jane, duly thanked, just sat back and waited for next time.