I’m going to tell you about the fine time had at MASCF this year, I swear. First you have to hear about the terrible time getting there.
On a good day, the drive would take four hours. On this day it took six.
Things were still going fine when I passed Dave Gentry in Fredericksburg. He had two of his skin-on-frame canoes on top of the car, so was easy to spot. A honk and a cheerful wave. Dave only lives a couple of miles up the road, but somehow we meet more often at boating events than around town. (Neither of us is sure this is a bad thing.) He was also enroute to St. Michaels.
We’re running a little late. Anyone who lives anywhere near Washington, DC, knows you don’t want to be within 50 miles of it during rush hour. Which is more like rush four hours – it starts at 3 and lasts to 7. But with a little luck we’d be on the far side of DC by the time the worst traffic ramped up. That luck went the other way, literally.
If you use mapping apps, you know software engineers keep trying to make them smarter. For years they’ve tracked the speed of cars moving slower than normal and warn you when there’s a problem ahead. Gives you the opportunity to plan your route differently. Very handy.
Then they started suggesting alternate routes while you’re underway. This was more intrusive, but still helpful. In Google Maps, the voice assistant would say “Tap if you want to accept this new route.” I rarely took these alternate routes, because the time saved was minimal, and it was dangerous to try to grab the phone while driving and find and tap the button before it disappeared. Just wasn’t worth it.
Well, apparently, that function changed with the last update. Now, regardless of what route you planned to take, Google will automatically reroute you. That’s the default. Now the message says, “Tap if you don’t want to accept the new route.” There are multiple problems with this. Let me innumerate them:
- The option to reject the new route only lasts a few seconds. That means you MUST grab the phone, find the button, and reject it quickly. Every time it attempts to reroute you. Otherwise, within seconds it’s sending you off in some other unknown direction. This is dangerous, and contrary to the user’s wishes.
- More and more people are using these apps, even when they already know where they’re going, specifically to get the traffic updates. That means Google is routing ALL those people onto the same alternate “faster” route at the same time. A side road designed to handle local traffic instantly becomes overwhelmed and gridlocked with cars, as though a big river were suddenly diverted into a creek. These apps are NOT managing traffic flow overall, they’re optimizing the route for each car as an isolated individual, irrespective of the cumulative effect that rerouting all those individuals will have when it happens in unison.
- Problem #2 is amplified by the core issue, which is these apps are not basing their recommendations on a predictable future. They are not looking at the bigger picture, or even using basic statistical probability to make smart decisions. They are at best giving you directions based on reported conditions already in the past, conditions that change very quickly. Effectively they look at somewhat recent reports and take you off what may now be a perfectly acceptable highway ahead, to send you and ten thousand of your closest friends onto a tiny side road in a residential neighborhood. All at once. And this is now the default. You have to take immediate action to prevent it. Every time that it thinks it knows better.
I did not know these things as I blithely wended my way towards the gaping maw of our nation’s capitol. The app worked fine before.
So at 3:30 when the little voice assistant said, “There’s a slow down ahead. You can save 11 minutes by taking this alternate route,” I ignored her to reject it. Moments later, I suddenly found myself in an exit only lane on my way toward the Pentagon, which closes at 3pm precisely because the 23,000 people who work there swamp all of DC with traffic so badly, all by themselves, they have to close early.
I, as a human with a modicum of experience, knew this. Apparently, the app does not know this. And does not know that with excruciating predictability the traffic in DC is about to explode. Nor does it know that I am towing a boat on a trailer. I, however, do know this.
Within moments I’m penned in on all sides next to the Pentagon by angry aggressive drivers, caught like a stick in a current flowing right toward the center of DC and the National Mall.
- Yes, I saw the 9/11 Monument.
- Yes, I saw the Washington Monument.
- The Jefferson Memorial.
- Lincoln Memorial
- US Treasury
- Air and Space Museum
- Museum of the American Indian
- National Botanic Gardens
- Library of Congress
- The US Capitol Building
Well, I would have seen the Capitol, except Google didn’t know I was towing a boat on a trailer, and I didn’t know that since 9/11 trailers are not allowed on Independence Avenue within several blocks of it. I found out this little detail when, around 4pm with the roads jammed with cars, police suddenly swarmed off the sidewalk toward me waving their arms and blowing whistles, and a patrol car whipped out across six lanes of traffic to block my way with lights flashing and sirens whooping.
There, in the middle of an intersection, blocking a total of nine jammed up lanes of angry traffic, surrounded by armed police persons, it was explained to me that I could not move one foot further forward.
They cleared the intersection and made me do a 270 u-turn right there, with the trailer, heading off somewhere into south DC and into the narrow one lane neighborhoods of Capitol Hill. All the while Google kept saying “Rerouting, make a u-turn, return to the route,” trying to send me back to the armed police officers.
From the time Google Maps took me off the highway to save 11 minutes, it took me 2 hours to get out of DC and back to where I would have been if I’d just stayed on the route planned.
Around dark, as I was rolling into St. Michaels, Dave Gentry called to see where I was. He had just arrived. He, too, had been rerouted into DC along the same “faster” path.