TOM UTLEY: What kind of idiot would slavishly follow a GPS for eight hours from London to York?


How I laughed this week when I saw pictures of this Mercedes-Benz taxi, stuck at a loose angle on a dirt road in the middle of Saddleworth Moor in the North West of England after its driver had was misled by his GPS.

What kind of idiot, I wondered, would continue to slavishly follow his navigation system as it so clearly led it in the wrong direction, across terrain passable only by a lunar exploration vehicle or tank?

But no sooner had I sniffed my contempt than I realized that I knew the answer to the question I had just asked all too well.

A Mercedes-Benz taxi got stuck on a track in the middle of Saddleworth Moor after the driver was misled by his navigation system

Oh dear. The shameful truth, as my wife will be quick to confirm, is that I am precisely that kind of idiot myself.

Besides, I think I have some idea of ​​how this poor taxi driver’s embarrassing situation came about.

It’s because I, too, am the proud owner of a Mercedes-Benz – not a high-end limo, mind you, but one of those cute little A-class sedans, which recently overtook its rivals to become the one of the best selling cars in the UK.


I bought it three years ago, as a retirement present for myself, and I love it with all my heart.

It’s a love, I’m sorry to say, that isn’t quite shared by Ms U, who finds the seats uncomfortable and the chassis too low to negotiate London speed bumps without constantly scraping her ass. She’s also far from impressed with the car‘s miraculously sophisticated electronics.

To list just a few of its amazing features, it can park automatically, by turning the steering wheel, pressing the accelerator and brakes and shifting from reverse to first gear without any driver intervention. Ms. U never even tried that.

There’s also an emergency SOS button, which will put you in immediate contact with a helpful member of Mercedes staff – as my wife noted to her dismay the other day when our grandson pressed it then that she had trouble fitting her car seat (like so many other four-year-olds, this boy just can’t see a button without pressing it).

However, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of my Merc is the beauty and clarity of its large-screen integrated navigation system. I have never seen a more brilliantly designed system to show the driver exactly which exit to take from the roundabout, or how far to expect traffic jams or traffic lights.

Since that dark eight-hour drive to York, I've acquired a portable <a class=GPS, which I fit on the dashboard of my beloved Merc.” class=”blkBorder img-share” style=”max-width:100%” />

Since that dark eight-hour drive to York, I’ve acquired a portable GPS, which I fit on the dashboard of my beloved Merc.

Just a small problem, and if you’re like Mrs. U, you’d say that’s a pretty serious flaw in a GPS: it doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea of ​​the best way to get from A to B.

Indeed, I have a theory that the prodigies who programmed the Mercedes-Benz navigation system were working on maps of the United Kingdom smuggled into Germany by the Special Operations Executive during World War II, for the purpose of mislead a possible Nazi invasion force.

Whatever the truth, I’ve lost count of the number of times in the past three years that I’ve found myself miles away from my intended destination, simply because I was dumb enough to follow the superbly clear directions. GPS Merc.

But for reasons that may not seem entirely coherent to you, I continued to trust this hopeless system. After all, what’s the point of spending a small fortune on a car with beautifully designed built-in GPS if I didn’t pay any attention to his advice?

It wasn’t until last October, when I drove the family to York for my darling niece Olivia’s wedding, that I finally learned not to trust her anymore.

Now, as most of us are well aware, the way to get from London to York is to close the M1, and you’re pretty much there.

Certainly, this is the road I would have taken once, when I had only the AA road atlas to guide me. It’s also how Mrs. U pushed me to go when we left for the wedding.


But the Merc’s satnav had other ideas, directing me away from the M1 towards Routes A and B, with occasional shortcuts through housing estates.

“Ignore him,” my wife said. But I assured him that there must be a good reason why he was telling me to avoid the conventional route. The freeway was probably jammed with traffic, I said. The Merc’s system has been programmed to take these things into account.

To sum up a never-ending story, we arrived in York after an exhausting eight hour drive on the scenic route, having covered almost all the city centers and roadworks along the way. . . only to learn that other guests who had driven from London, without the benefit of a Mercedes sat nav, had completed the trip in just over half the time.

To be fair to Mrs. U, she did not utter a word of reproach during those agonizing eight hours of our ordeal. She just smiled quietly, that chilling way women have of shouting, without really making a sound: “I TOLD YOU SO, BEING IDIOT BLITHERING!”

Enough to say that if the hapless taxi driver relied on his Merc’s built-in GPS, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he got stuck in a dirt road on Saddleworth Moor.

Now, as most of us are well aware, the way to get from London to York is to close the M1, and you're pretty much there.  Certainly, this is the path I would have taken in the past, when I had only the AA road atlas to guide me.

Now, as most of us are well aware, the way to get from London to York is to close the M1, and you’re pretty much there. Certainly, this is the path I would have taken in the past, when I had only the AA road atlas to guide me.

All of this brings me to a big mystery: Why is a powerful automaker like Mercedes-Benz, which produces some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, unable to produce a navigation system that knows the way from A to B?

And why, if its in-house prodigies can’t handle it, doesn’t Mercedes just buy a license for the necessary software from a company that knows what it’s doing?

(Before other automakers start getting smug, I should point out that a friend with a Mitsubishi tells me that its built-in navigation system is also rubbish – not a patch, he says, on apps such as Google, TomTom or Waze.)


But maybe there’s a deeper mystery behind it all. Why is it, I wonder, that so many people like me, who pride themselves on having a modicum of common sense, are so ready to trust computers when it should be clear to the lowest intelligence that they are completely unworthy of our trust?

I am thinking of the news, published this week, that eight offenders in Scotland sentenced to life behind bars have been granted temporary release due to a computer glitch that miscalculated 1,317 risk assessments.

Did anyone think it was very strange that eight obviously dangerous lifers were released at the request of an electronic device?

Or take the truly terrible scandal of the Post Office’s wrongful pursuit of over 700 deputy postmasters and postmistresses, many of whom were utterly destroyed after being falsely accused of theft, false accounting or fraud on account of a faulty computer program.

Why, in the name of all that is sacred, has no one at the Post Office stopped to say, “Wait! It simply defies common sense that so many of these once-trustworthy people are suddenly taken in, all at once. There must be something wrong with our new software’?

But then again, why did I continue to trust my car’s navigation system, after the countless times it had led me astray?

I don’t have an answer to that. I can only say that I finally learned my lesson. Since that grim eight-hour drive to York, I’ve acquired a portable GPS, which I’m installing on the dashboard of my beloved Merc – and I’m advising this taxi driver to do the same.

It may not be as beautiful or as clear as the version that comes with the car. But as Mrs. U will hasten to tell you, with her exasperating smile I told you, the best part is that he seems to know the way.


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