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Your GPS sent you where?

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Backroads are beautiful but can be hard to drive on.  Photo courtesy of Heidi Myers/the Dirty 40
Backroads are beautiful but can be hard to drive on. Photo courtesy of Heidi Myers/the Dirty 40

copyright the Chronicle February 25, 2015

by Natalie Hormilla

WESTFIELD — Here’s an increasingly familiar scenario: Friends, or strangers, visiting from elsewhere are stuck on a back road and need help.

Which road? you ask.

They say the name, and you can only wonder why on Earth they would choose an unplowed, class four road as the best option for getting to your house.

The GPS said so, they explain.

That type of problem recently led Carolyn Lyster of Westfield to ask the selectmen if Reservoir Road could possibly be taken off the Global Positioning System (GPS).

“The road is closed in the wintertime, and GPS is not aware of that,” Ms. Lyster said in a brief telephone interview Friday.

Reservoir Road travels up and down a steep hill and serves as something of a shortcut. The road is fine to drive on in summer, Ms. Lyster said. And in deep winter, snowbanks at either end of the road make it inaccessible. Not that cars could drive on the class three road in deep snow anyway — the town doesn’t plow that road.

The problem arises during those in-between times of year, when the road is accessible but still dangerous.

“After a snowfall or a frost, it can be icy, and yet perfectly clear on either end,” Ms. Lyster said.

The top of the hill is also sheltered by trees, which keeps the hilltop icy even when one might not expect it.

Ms. Lyster knows this well because she lives nearby. But not everyone who travels Reservoir Road knows it.

“There certainly was an incident right after Christmas,” she said. “A family from Rhode Island leaving Jay Peak was advised by GPS to take Reservoir Road, which makes no sense whatsoever.”

“They were stranded on the ice and had to be pulled out,” she said.

That wasn’t the first time Ms. Lyster had seen people get stuck at the top of that road.

The town places barrels at either end of the road to prevent such incidents, said Westfield Selectmen Chairman Yves Daigle in a telephone interview Friday.

“But people move them and head up,” he said.

When the barrels aren’t replaced and an unsuspecting carful of people are told by their GPS to take Reservoir Road, the problem continues.

“That’s what GPS does,” Mr. Daigle said. “It leads you to dead- end roads and some that are closed in winter.”

Still, he said he would prefer not to pursue having Reservoir Road taken off the GPS, because he wouldn’t want to do anything that might hurt the state aid the town receives for that road.

“The aid that we get is taxes people don’t have to raise,” he said.

Mr. Daigle said he would prefer a sturdier physical barrier than the barrels to remedy the situation.

“Either a chain across the road, or even if we had to put a gate at the bottom and open it up in the spring,” he said.

There is one issue with Reservoir Road in summer, both Mr. Daigle and Ms. Lyster said, when big trucks and buses sometimes take that road.

“If you meet one, someone’s got to back up,” Mr. Daigle said.

About three-quarters of Reservoir Road is so narrow it’s essentially one lane of travel, he said.

The selectmen have a definite solution for the problem, to be taken care of in the spring.

“We’re going to have a sign made, and we’re just going to put, no trucks allowed. Or buses,” Mr. Daigle said.

Even though he is not in favor of having the road removed from the GPS, the selectmen plan to bring up the issue at their annual meeting with the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) in the spring.

But Ms. Lyster brings up an intriguing question: Is it possible for a road to be removed from the GPS?

“I have to believe there’s a way to do it,” said Jason Kim, senior advisor in the National Coordination Office in Washington, D.C.

But getting it done would require a lot of legwork and consent from several private companies who rely on the map data they’ve commodified — and the National Coordination Office isn’t in control of that.

The GPS itself is a satellite system provided by the government.

“You can think of it as lighthouses in the sky,” Mr. Kim said. “They provide a set of references that you can orient yourself towards.”

There are about 38 satellites orbiting the Earth, as part of the GPS system, Mr. Kim said. The satellites broadcast radio waves, which travel at the speed of light. Those waves are picked up by devices like cell phones and anything with a GPS receiver.

The satellites themselves are provided by, and controlled by, the U.S. government.

“It’s operated by the Air Force,” Mr. Kim said. “They acquire, design, and maintain all the satellites.”

The National Executive Committee for Space-based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing oversees the GPS and is comprised of representatives from several arms of the government, also the military and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

That committee provides top level guidance and funding, Mr. Kim said. Funding for the GPS comes from general U.S. tax revenues.

“Congress provided over $1-billion to fund the core GPS program in fiscal year 2015,” says gps.gov. For more detail on that budget, visit gps.gov/policy/funding/2015/.

The GPS was designed in the 1960s to meet military requirements, Mr. Kim said, like for targeting bombs.

“That obviously is a fundamental reason we have GPS and that we operate it and fund it,” he said.

The civil and commercial application is a whole other story.

When people think of the GPS, they tend to think of the maps and graphics on their cell phones or on their stand alone devices in their car, and lump the whole thing together, Mr. Kim said. But those detailed maps, including the handy restaurant and hotel information, does not come from the GPS system provided by the government.

“All the government provides are these satellites that help you figure out your coordinates,” he said. “That map data actually comes from companies like Apple and Google.”

Basically, the government provides the pipes of the system, while private companies provide the content.

The National Coordination Office used to get a lot of phone calls from people complaining about bad directions from the GPS, Mr. Kim said.

“The best we can do is point people toward the companies we know of to recommend changes or fix errors,” he said. “But you’d have to go to every single company….”

“And that doesn’t even necessarily solve the problem, because the company might not accept the change,” he said. “And then it has to be pushed out to the users, and some people don’t ever update those things.”

In the case of a stand alone GPS device, like in a car, the map data is only updated when the user updates the device, because the device is a one-way — it does not automatically send anything back to anyplace.

To help the public, the National Coordination Office set up a page on its website where people can contact the private companies that provide the map data. That page is at gps.gov/support/user/mapfix. There, people can send their recommendations to private companies like TomTom (used by Apple,) Google Maps, Garmin, OpenStreetMap, and HERE.

VTrans is one of the entities from which private map data companies get their information, as with local roads in Vermont. But simply having VTrans come up with a map that, say, doesn’t include Reservoir Road, wouldn’t necessarily be the complete solution to removing a road from the GPS.

“Each company has sort of a different paradigm of how they collect their data,” said Johnathan Croft, the chief of the mapping section at VTrans in Montpelier. “These companies have these huge proprietary databases.”

Some of the information comes from public sources, like with the maps VTrans provides, but some of the data also comes from private sources.

Companies like HERE and Google send cars to drive all the roads themselves, for example.

The map data information is “coming from all kinds of different places,” Mr. Croft said.

There’s also the problem of there being multiple mapping companies who are independent from each other.

“You may have it removed from one, but what if it’s still with the others?” he said.

Mr. Croft also pointed out that some people may never want a road taken off the GPS, people, for instance, who may want to build a house on that road, or people who need the E-911 service.

Private companies are not regulated so no one can tell them to remove a road, he said.

The maps drawn up by VTrans are given to private map data companies for free, and are available to the public as well, Mr. Croft said.

VTrans hears about bad GPS directions a lot, Mr. Croft said.

“There’s actually a sign in the southern part of the state that says ‘road not passable, your GPS is wrong,’ or something like that,” he said.

“We’ve actually gotten complaints from Senator Leahy’s office about how people have been routed incorrectly on GPS.”

The problem comes up more so with class four roads, he said. Class four roads are not maintained by towns.

“The part they don’t get is either the road closes during the wintertime, or it’s very sort of narrow and curvy, and you have large trucks that try to get through there because their GPS says it’s the fastest way,” Mr. Croft said.

“We heard a story about someone who drove out on a snowmobile trail and then they got stuck, and it’s like, at what point do you realize that the road is really bad and you should stop?” he said. “But GPS was telling them they were going the right way.”

As a prudent driver himself, Mr. Croft said, he thinks it’s strange to just blindly follow a device.

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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