Cars and Concepts

Telematics: Cool! Information: Not so much

This morning I drove down westbound Interstate 94 in Detroit in a 2014 GMC Sierra, a generally very impressive pickup and experienced the state of the art of driver information systems.

It was a little unsettling.

As I entered the freeway, a computerized voice burst out of the dash urging caution because of road construction on I-94. Because I drive the stretch daily, I knew it was referring to an overpass-replacement job a few miles down the road.

Like thousands of other commuters, I’ve watched the work for several months, admiring the ingenuity with which the road crew minimized traffic disruption. Currently the workers have shifted traffic lanes slightly and are -- somewhat amazingly -- rebuilding the midroad structure in a cramped space as traffic zooms past on both sides.

So I wasn’t too alarmed. The job site produces a slight slowdown, at worst, most mornings.

Then the warning voice came back. It seemed irked that I was blithely disregarding its first message.

“Road closed,” it proclaimed in a tone that suggested I was about to drive off a cliff or something equally dire. Then it told me that the I-94 entrance ramps were closed.

The system was really on the case. The only problem: The information ranged from useless to completely wrong.

The road that normally passes over the freeway certainly was closed, as evidenced by the missing overpass. But I-94, the road I was traveling on, was not closed. And because I was already on I-94, telling me about closed entrance ramps was irrelevant.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes and drive on. But it struck me that it would have been a different story if I had been navigating an unfamiliar city. The “road closed” warning would have seriously misinformed me.

This gets at the nagging concern I have when I hear about future tech -- self-guided cars that avoid accidents, never get lost, reroute themselves around traffic jams, sync themselves with your daily calendar and brew you an espresso.

The system of relaying satellite information through telematics links is undeniably cool. But if the information itself is bad, all that fine technology goes for naught.

Or, as an earlier generation of techies put it, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

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