Getting around: Will GPS units and online directions make paper maps obsolete?


Her voice is so familiar I can almost hear it in my sleep.

Turn left.

Turn right.

McDonald s on right in 300 feet.

Her words are calm, reassuring and authoritative without being pushy.

Frankly, if I said much more about my GPS (Global Positioning System) unit my wife might get jealous.

Funny thing is, the GPS was my wife s idea.

When she asked me what I wanted for a birthday gift, I replied, nothing practical. Later I thought about my situation: driving solo to Toledo from Las Vegas with very little idea of how to get there ... or here, as is the now the case.

So I relented on my nothing practical instruction and sheepishly suggested maybe I would like a GPS device. My wife had already bought one. Clever, that one.

It may be the best gift she s ever given me.

My GPS unit navigated me 2,200 miles on major highways and one-lane roads, through major cities and single-stoplight towns to my new home in Toledo. Along the way it directed me to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and reasonably priced hotels, to conveniently placed gas stations and much-needed rest stops.

Only once did I crack an atlas, and that was only to double-check a GPS route suggestion; the atlas confirmed the GPS was correct. (There s a reason my GPS has a female voice.)

I m directionally impaired but my GPS counters this shortcoming with easy-to-understand route suggestions that keep me on the proper path. The only time I have been burned by my dashboard navigator is when encountering road construction hardly something I can blame on the GPS, especially since a planned map route would have directed me to the same problem area.

Frankly, I can no longer imagine my life without the ingenious device. The GPS to me is what a bullet-proof vest is to a cop: a lifesaver.

So this got me thinking: Do I need a map anymore? And if not, then has the GPS made the traditional print map the latest victim of technology s brutish march forward?

How it works

While GPS users search for locations on earth, they need information from space to do it.

Essentially each unit is tuned to the frequencies of 12 or so of the nearly three dozen satellites orbiting the planet. The device receives location information from those eyes in the sky, and as the unit moves, the satellite information is updated to reflect changes in coordinates.

If the technology seems advanced, it is. Which means, of course, the military must ve been involved in its creation. It was.

During the Gulf War, U.S. Armed Forces relied on Global Positioning System technology to locate bombing targets and guide their weapons with deadly precision.

The accuracy [the military] reported in the Gulf War is that they could get things the size of a 50-cent piece, said Timothy Ault, senior researcher at the center for Geographic Information Science and Applied Geographics at the University of Toledo.

If the technology was good enough for the military during war time, it certainly was good enough for consumers during drive time.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates sales of GPS units at $4.1 billion last year, with 18 percent of online adults owning the digital navigational device, and 24 percent of online adults feeling left out and wanting one.

About five years ago enthusiastic GPS users even created a high-tech treasure-hunting game, geocaching, to locate hidden objects called geocaches in remote outdoor places. the official Global GPS cache hunt site, states there are 636,795 active geocaches globally.

Save the maps

Based on the increasing popularity of GPS devices and geocaching, maps must certainly be headed for the land of the dinosaur, eight track and VCR.


Felicity Sicre, e-commerce manager of, which sells print maps including atlases, wall maps and travel guides, said interest in the maps is up 30 percent from last year based on the Web site s traffic.

Consumer spending on map products has doubled since 2003 [based on Web site sales], she said. And average spending on map products has increased 20 percent per year over the past five years.

Clearly print maps aren t becoming extinct anytime soon.

Ault isn t sure they ever will.

I don t think [GPS is] ever going to replace the maps in general, just like the Internet and the love of information haven t replaced books, he said.

Maps enjoy a substantial competitive price edge over their electronic counterparts, say $10 for a foldout map compared to anywhere from $125 to $1,000 or more for a GPS unit, depending on its functions.

Updating electronic maps annually with the latest information on roads, restaurants, hotels, grocery stores and retail outlets is costly, too. The optional upgrade can costs GPS users an additional $50-$100.

Maps don t break, and they don t require batteries, either, so there s never a concern about running out of juice while navigating.

And certainly the small GPS unit screens typically 3 inches by 5 inches pale in comparison to a 3-feet-by-3-feet foldout map.

But a GPS can do things a map cannot do.

Say, for example, you re in an unfamiliar city and you re craving Mexican food. Press a few buttons on the GPS and a list of nearby Mexican restaurants will pop up in order of proximity to your location.

After your meal, you could locate ice cream shops on your GPS, and after dessert be directed back to your hotel.

Some GPS units even have the ability to provide traffic reports, and will steer you clear of a freeway standstill with alternative routes. Other features in the works for GPS units are weather updates, as well as the ability to locate gas stations and tell you the stations gas prices.

All those features may be more than someone needs, though. In fact, for some a cheap print map is all that s needed.

If you spend most of your time driving around town and you know the area pretty well you probably won t need a GPS, Ault said. Then again ... if they travel a lot and are taking their car to different places ... a GPS would be very useful to them.

But if those navigational tools aren t enough, there are other digital mapping technologies available, too.

All you need is a computer or cell phone with an online connection.


As most anyone who s spent time on the Web knows, free digital map services such as Yahoo Maps and MapQuest are quick and easy methods in getting someone from point A to point B.

Perhaps the best known and most popular of these Internet navigational tools is Google Maps. Introduced in 2005, Google Maps provides users with location information, and gives step-by-step directions to the requested address.

The service is proving increasingly popular. According to information from comScore, Inc., a worldwide Internet information provider that tracks, among other things, the popularity of Web sites, Google Maps had 39.6 million U.S. unique visitors in July 2008, an increase of 35 percent from the same month a year ago.

Peter Birch, production manager for Google Earth, which provides the underlying satellite imagery for Google Maps, said the growth of digital maps can be attributed to consumer familiarity with the service, as well as an expansion in the geographic reach of the maps.

Consumers are also attracted to the increasing options available in the digital mapping technologies, he said.

For example, Google introduced features to its map service to plot navigation via transit system.

Most of the other tools are drive-focused, Birch said. But a lot of times transit is a better answer. It s more convenient and better for the environment.

Digital mapping is available for cell phone and mobile device users as well, which makes the technology even more convenient.

Using Google Maps for mobile, MapQuest wireless or TeleNav GPS Navigator, for example, can turn an iPhone or BlackBerry into a mini GPS unit, with point-to-point directions, and the ability to locate and even call nearby businesses.

I have an iPhone and it immediately can identify where I am on the map, Birch said. I can do a local search and it will show a restaurant ... and I can immediately get directions between the points. I can have it show where all the turns are and it will draw it on the map.

Given the ubiquity of cell phones, it s understandable why Google views portable navigation as the future for digital mapping.

We see cell phones as one of our most important assets, Birch said. That s something we see as a really popular growth area for mapping.

Of course, there are limitations to these technologies, too. For one, an Internet connection is necessary. Print maps are also considerably cheaper than a laptop or BlackBerry.

But, inevitably, there are those who will prefer print maps versus their digital counterparts, just like some music purists prefer the warmth of a record album over a CD.

It may be for the convenience of a paper map. It may be for the low cost. It may even be the for the simple pleasure of unfolding and folding again a large map.

And that s OK, too, said Birch.

There s a role for that, he said. There will always be some nostalgia for a paper map.

Contact Kirk Baird at: or 419-724-6734