5 On Your Side

Mapping services, devices get people to their destinations

Posted May 25, 2010 6:50 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2010 4:24 p.m. EDT

— Portable GPS devices, online mapping services and smart phones make folding paper maps fairly obsolete for travel directions.

Most new mapping devices use one of two main databases, so the results they provide are similar. To find out how reliable the systems are, however, 5 on Your Side put them to an unscientific test by plotting a course from Raleigh to Durham and back.

Garmin GPS, Google and Mapquest all took drivers through downtown Raleigh and up Capital Boulevard as the recommended route from WRAL's studio on Western Boulevard to the Triangle Town Center mall. Garmin and Google took drivers to the first entrance, while Maquest sent them one block north to an entrance off Old Wake Forest Road.

In the trip to Durham, the mapping systems referred to Interstate 540 as "Town Boulevard," and Google recommended a route that added four miles to the trip by going all the way to Interstate 40. Garmin and Mapquest, meanwhile, routed drivers through Research Triangle Park on T.W. Alexander Drive to N.C. Highway 147.

When the drivers arrived at the Durham Performing Arts Center, all three services sent them to Vivian Street, which no longer exists.

In another test, about a dozen WRAL employees who have smart phones, portable GPS devices and in-dash systems also were recruited to compare the routes they normally take to work with directions provided by the mapping services.

All of them made it to work following their devices, but some were directed in some roundabout ways compared to the routes they typically take.

"It was crazy," promotions director Shelly Leslie said, noting that following directions on her iPhone or Mapquest increased her commute time from eight minutes to 20 minutes.

The mapping services sent her around the Interstate 440 Beltline to work instead of her usual route through downtown Raleigh.

"I was thinking, 'Where am I going?' I'm thinking, 'I'm on the Beltline, and I'm getting off.' One route had me get off on Person Street and come through downtown and get back on it," Leslie said. "If you don't know where you're going, how do you know that it's wrong?"

Although the routes weren't always the most direct path, all of the mapping services got drivers where they wanted to go. None stood out as far superior to the others, but portable GPS devices with wide screens, large buttons and text-to-speech directions were easier to use than most phones. Devices that take voice commands added another plus.

To improve the directions provided, drivers should keep their GPS units updated. Services provide four updates a year, and many devices alert owners when it's time for an update. Updated maps can also be purchased and downloaded from Navigation.com.

A one-time update for a portable device costs about $70, while lifetime updates are about $120. With an in-dash GPS, the update DVD costs about $200.

Mapquest and the majority of GPS devices get information for directions from NAVTEQ, which has geographic field analysts drive the streets documenting changes.

Users can report discrepancies to NAVTEQ online.