Apple Maps Glitch in Australia Shows Why We Have To Stop Blindly Following GPS Navigators

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 11 2012 5:59 PM

Apple Maps Glitch in Australia Shows Why We Have To Stop Blindly Following GPS Navigators

800px-Pink_Lakes_at_Murray_Sunset_NP
Australia's Murray Sunset National Park

Photograph by Papphase/Wikimedia Commons.

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing about the mistakes in Apple’s iOS6 Maps. But in Australia, the app’s glitches are big news—because they could have had deadly consequences.

According to the BBC, police officers have had come to the aid of drivers stranded without food, water, or cellphone reception in life-threatening heat after obeying Apple’s Maps. Those looking for the town of Mildura in the southeast of Australia were instead taken to the middle of nowhere—that is, the middle of Murray Sunset National Park. 

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"Tests on the mapping system by police confirm the mapping systems lists Mildura in the middle of the Murray Sunset National Park, approximately 70km [45 miles] away from the actual location of Mildura," Victoria police's acting senior sergeant Sharon Darcy said in a press release.

"Police are extremely concerned as there is no water supply within the park and temperatures can reach as high as 46 [114.8 Fahrenheit], making this a potentially life-threatening issue."

While Apple CEO Tim Cook has admitted the software has many mistakes, it looks like the company shouldn’t get all the blame for the Australia snafu. The Guardian notes that Maps got its data from the Australian government’s official gazetteer—basically a geographical dictionary—which tagged the middle of Murray Sunset National Park as “Mildura Rural City.” Technically, Mildura Rural City is a 8,500 square mile geographic area that includes the park. That makes Apple's confusion understandable, but it doesn’t absolve the company.

The bad press following the Australian police warning prompted Apple to patch the map immediately.

But as much as I’d like to taunt Apple, maybe the moral of the story here is to stop blindly following technology. We’ve seen many examples of GPS navigation leading to disaster in the United States. In Death Valley, for example, drivers blithely follow their GPS devices despite signs that urge “Stay On Designated Roads.”

The tourism website for Death Valley warns, in all caps in red font: DO NOT DEPEND ONLY ON YOUR VEHICLE GPS NAVIGATION SYSTEM. One boy died in the desert after his mother followed her GPS system’s directions and got lost. In 2009, meanwhile, an elderly couple got stuck in a Nevada snow drift for a few days in 2009 after their GPS sent them down a country road.  

With a little common sense, some of these mishaps may have been avoidable. While folks may be convinced technology is trying to kill them, they only have their internal computer to blame.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Fruzsina Eördögh is a freelance writer covering digital culture and technology. Follow her on Twitter.