Mobile Navigation Still Not Where It Needs to Be

It is remarkable how far online mapping and navigation has evolved over the last ten years.  Remember back to the days of MapQuest and when Google rendered maps using individual pre-generated tiles?  A lot has changed since then, MapQuest is #3 or #4 (if you consider Bing), maps are rendered dynamically, but a killer mobile mapping app has yet to be developed.

What defines a killer mobile mapping application?  My experience recently navigating the streets of San Francisco (RIP Karl Malden) demonstrated what is lacking and what is needed for useful mobile navigation.

First I’ll define what I really needed during my trip and then I’ll review the two solutions I attempted to use.

Let me say that mapping and navigation is not terrible (see my United Wifi article if you want to read about ‘terrible’).  It basically functions and you can generally find your way around route-wise.  Navigation from Apple or Google works…okay.  Note that I didn’t think of trying Bing, but I would be surprised if it fared better.

Also note that I was in the largest city near the heart of Silicon Valley.  Both Google and Apple are located just down the coast in Mountain View and Cupertino respectively – so you have to believe a lot of the mapping was tested in SFO (San Francisco airport code).

Mapping Needs

  1. Ability to search by address or business name.
  2. Ability to show multiple routes to the destination, with the ability to re-route automatically should I veer from the suggested route.
  3. Voice guided routing with good pronunciation of street names.
  4. Specific guidance when approaching the intersection of multiple major roads, or a multitude of lanes that takes the driver in various directions.
  5. The ability to dead-reckon when GPS information is not available.
  6. Knowledge of business entrances so that the driver does not approach the business or landmark in a way that prohibits entrance.
  7. The ability to manage multiple stop-overs in a route – or force the route through a certain stop-over.
  8. The ability to save routes so that they can be called up later or from other devices.
  9. Display of rapid transit, rail, cable cars (SFO) along with automobile directions.
  10. Display of current traffic information and using this to guide the driver to alternate routes when traffic is heavy.
  11. A useful number of business and landmarks in the search database.
  12. The ability to reliably predict my ETA.
  13. Connection to my Apple Watch (see my articles on my experience with Apple Watch).
  14. The ability to limit my search results to my local area versus anywhere in the US.

Apple Maps

apple-maps-icon

I should be forthright and mention that I’m an Apple guy.  I used to be a Windows guy for nearly 15 years and then I switched to Apple because of my issues with Windows 98, Vista and Windows 7 – and I never looked back. I probably should, based on what I’m hearing about Surface.

So I started with Apple Maps and attempted to use my Macbook to develop the route and then send that route to my iPhone or iPad.  I was able to send the map to my device easily (using the share button).  The maps were generally very good on my Macbook.  There’s no web-based version of Apple Maps (like Google has).  You have to use their application (app on your iOS device).

Here’s the rundown for Apple Maps:

  1. Ability to search by address or business name. Yes, but it seemed to have a limited number of landmarks or business names (fewer than Google).  Address searched worked well, but the proximity search did not (see #14 below)
  2. Ability to show multiple routes to the destination, with the ability to re-route automatically should I veer from the suggested route. Yes and yes. Each route shows an ETA should you take that route.
  3. Voice guided routing with good pronunciation of street names. Yes, reasonably well in terms of pronunciation. 
  4. Specific guidance when approaching the intersection of multiple major roads, or a multitude of lanes that takes the driver in various directions.  Sort of.  Apple generally told me to stay to the left or right, and to make a right or left when approaching an intersection but was not as good as Google at advising me which lane I should stick to (especially when multiple lanes were available).  Also, Google seemed to have a knack of when I might veer from my route due to confusing lane changes and did a much better job of keeping me in the correct lane. 
  5. The ability to dead-reckon when GPS information is not available. No.  More on this later.
  6. Knowledge of business entrances so that the driver does not approach the business or landmark in a way that prohibits entrance. No.  The entrance to my hotel for my car was on a different street than the actual address of the hotel (Mason versus Post) causing me to have to drive past the hotel and loop back around (navigating a bunch of one way, no turns intersections).
  7. The ability to manage multiple stop-overs in a route – or force the route through a certain stop-over. No.
  8. The ability to save routes so that they can be called up later or from other devices. Not really.  You can send your route to another device and it appears as a “push notification” (sort of) that you can recall, you can save it as a static PDF, you can share it on Facebook, but I couldn’t find a way to save it and then go back to it and add points or adjustments later.
  9. Display of rapid transit, rail, cable cars (SFO) along with automobile directions. Sort of.  On the Macbook you have the option of Walk or Drive.  On other iOS devices you can select Rapid Transit as well and it will give you route for those as well.
  10. Display of current traffic information and using this to guide the driver to alternate routes when traffic is heavy. Yes and no. You can see traffic and accidents, but it does not appear to route you a different way should the traffic cause so much of a delay that an alternate route would be quicker – at least not consistently. 
  11. A useful number of business and landmarks in the search database. Yes, but not as good as Google.
  12. The ability to reliably predict my ETA. On highways without traffic, yes.  On streets with traffic lights or heavy traffic, no.
  13. Connection to my Apple Watch (see my articles on my experience with Apple Watch). Yes, of course for Apple.  And in fact, that appears to be the best feature of Apple maps.  It’s tick-TOCK to turn right and TICK-tock to turn left, plus seeing at a glance what the next turn will be was very useful. 
  14. The ability to limit my search results to my local area versus anywhere in the US. Yes – sort of.  Sometimes when it didn’t have accurate GPS it gave me results all over the US – far far away from where I was, which made it confusing.   In fact, I swore that my iPad had my location (due to the glowing blue dot on the map) and still presented search results for Los Angeles (where I was earlier in the trip, but far from my current SFO location).

Google Maps

Google lead the way with Mapping when they deployed their tGoogle_Maps_Iconhousands of radar equipped vehicles to map out the details of the roads and capture street side images.  During my trip, I did vary from Apple to Google to see which was better.  Here’s my results based on the features I felt were important:

  1. Ability to search by address or business name. Yes.
  2. Ability to show multiple routes to the destination, with the ability to re-route automatically should I veer from the suggested route. Yes – in fact Google tells you how many minutes slow it is/will be and continues to suggest changes in your route as you proceed if there are quicker ways.  
  3. Voice guided routing with good pronunciation of street names.  Yes, better than Apple, in my opinion.
  4. Specific guidance when approaching the intersection of multiple major roads, or a multitude of lanes that takes the driver in various directions. Yes, very good.  Very intuitive at knowing how to navigate complicated intersections and lane changes.  
  5. The ability to dead-reckon when GPS information is not available. No.
  6. Knowledge of business entrances so that the driver does not approach the business or landmark in a way that prohibits entrance. No.
  7. The ability to manage multiple stop-overs in a route – or force the route through a certain stop-over. On the web-based version, yes.  In the iOS app, no.
  8. The ability to save routes so that they can be called up later or from other devices. I think this is possible but after fiddling with Google Maps for a while, I gave up.  It appears there’s a way to save something into “My Maps” but I couldn’t figure it out.  Maybe just the jet lag.
  9. Display of rapid transit, rail, cable cars (SFO) along with automobile directions. Yes.  And it provides intelligent routes that include labeling each segment of the route when you are asked to disembark a train and walk to your destination.  Also, good information on rail transmit times when you are actually riding the rail. 
  10. Display of current traffic information and using this to guide the driver to alternate routes when traffic is heavy. No.  Traffic is displayed but Google never asked whether I wanted to take a different route now that I had encountered traffic.  It did have this message that “I was on the fastest route available based on current conditions”.  If that was true, I don’t know but Google thought so.
  11. A useful number of business and landmarks in the search database. Yes, more comprehensive than Apple, in my opinion.
  12. The ability to reliably predict my ETA. Yes.
  13. Connection to my Apple Watch (see my articles on my experience with Apple Watch). Not application.  I’m sure with an Android Wearable, this is the case, but with my Apple Watch, no (understandably).
  14. The ability to limit my search results to my local area versus anywhere in the US. Yes, generally better than Apple.  I don’t recall ever getting search results that were not in my vicinity.

The Verdict

So in summary, Google maps out performed Apple Maps, specifically in terms of the turn-by-turn navigation it provided, the better route assistance and the better information on rapid transit versus automobile transportation.  In fact, I used Google more than Apple Maps.

What’s Still Missing?

A. Walking directions do not work well.  I’m thinking this has to do with not being able to get a good GPS location when you’re walking among the skyscrapers in a large city.  Google continued to wander and turn me in the wrong direction.  Apple was a little better but still allowed me to go the wrong way.

B. Performance lacking.  Both Google and Apple intermittently took a long time to calculate a route.  And that’s disastrous when you’re driving down the road and decide to alter your route to another stopover.  Your passenger who’s doing the re-routing (because the driver shouldn’t being doing this during driver) will sit and wait for the spinner to stop spinning while your car is traveling at 65mph down the road.

C. Dead reckoning.  As mentioned previously, it’s understandable that GPS is not always available, especially if you’re near tall structures (mountains, buildings, etc.).  But using the compass and accelerometer, your device should be able to guess where you are.  Google, more than Apple, often had me facing the wrong way.

D. Multi-stopovers.  Why on Earth can’t I travel to three different places consecutively by entering three different stopovers in my mapping apps?  Neither Google nor Apple could do this on my iPhone.  Google could do this on their web-version, but Apple could not on their PC “App”.

E. Knowing where the entrance to a landmark is rather than just it’s building address.  More than a few times both mapping systems put me at my landmark but without the ability to actually enter the landmark because the entrance was on another street.  I recognize logistically this would be different information to compile, but until we do, searching manually for the entrance is in order.

An Interesting Side-Effect

I found the guidance more effective when I disregarded my intuition and the directional signs I was reading and instead just listened to the voice guidance from my phone.  This was especially true for Google.  When I read a poorly noted directional sign and assumed what Google wanted me to do, I was usually wrong (I often jumped the gun) on turns and on-ramps. But if I just continued to drive until my next voice prompt, things worked well.  It’s counterintuitive because you’re trained as a young driver to attempt to figure out what signs mean, whereas Google apparently knows the route and does not get distracted by poorly labeled ramps and turns.

Summary

Being a technology guy, I had higher expectations of both mapping solutions.  To be fair, I didn’t consider using Bing and next time I will do so and update this article.  My wife and daughter both were frustrated at the inability to perform some simple calculations related to stopovers.

It’s not lost on me that this technology is way better and less manual than the old days of opening paper maps.

But one thing that paper maps did force you to do was pre-plan your route, study the options and visually pick the most appropriate path.  This was true of walking downtown. These new mobile apps fool you into thinking that this pre-planning is no longer necessary – that you can simple plug in addresses into these apps and they will magically direct you to your destination.  This is still not the case in about 20% of the time.  The technology still has significant room to grow.

 

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