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Published: Saturday, June 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

GPS phone apps getting needed upgrades

If you have a driver's license, chances are you also have an amusing story about GPS directions.
Here is mine: My family and I were driving from Cayucos, Calif., to Prescott, Ariz., when I noticed that the needle on the fuel gauge was pointing to empty.
Not a problem, I thought. There must be plenty of service stations between here and Bakersfield.
We'd entrusted our route to the Google Maps app on my iPhone. The program assured me that, yes, the winding road between Santa Maria and I-5 was the fastest, most direct route. It even showed me the gas stations along the way: a Texaco, an Exxon and a Chevron.
Wrong on all counts.
Our "direct" route took us on a narrow two-lane road through sparsely populated hill country. By the time we reached the promised location of the first gas station, the "E" light was glaring at me and we were running on fumes.
But the station was nowhere to be found. That was when we noticed the refineries and realized that our helpful app couldn't tell the difference between a gas station and a fuel processing plant.
Directions offered via smartphone through a mapping service such as Google Maps or MapQuest and aided by the Global Positioning System (GPS), have always been a little iffy. But recent advances hold the promise of change.
Google has unveiled a "next generation" update to its maps program that will allow it to map off-road locations; a spokesman told me that the company is also making all its directions "more accurate."
And Apple has announced that it is developing a new mapping application for its iPhone that will be available with the latest operating system.
With two leading GPS apps in your smartphone, you'll be able to plot a route with both to see whether they agree; if they don't, you can consult a "real" map or just ask for directions.
It's not yet clear whether the upgrades will arrive in time to benefit summer travelers. If they do, it won't be a moment too soon.
Mistakes such as these can be a big problem for travel-related businesses, such as Chehalem Ridge Bed and Breakfast in Oregon's wine country. An error in Google Maps and other GPS-based mapping applications sends visitors on a two-mile detour down a gravel road, innkeeper Kristin Fintel said. "It's frustrating for me, knowing that our guests were inconvenienced and that potential guests reading reviews might avoid us because it was a challenge to find," she said.
For some drivers, a better GPS experience is already in their grasp. Rich Owings, an expert on GPS maps who publishes an online gear review site called GPS Tracklog, says that users often forget to update their software before they take a road trip, so their maps aren't accurate.
And David Bakke, who edits the personal finance site Money Crashers, says that drivers often don't bother to double-check their destination to make sure that the system didn't identify the wrong place with a similar name.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2012 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Story tags » HardwareTravel

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