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Ghost bridges and missing highways

Ronald Reagan left a legacy of at least three things: deregulation, the war on drugs, and public access to GPS satellites. The jury is still out on the wisdom of the first two initiatives, but overall GPS has been a boon to humanity, and...


Ronald Reagan left a legacy of at least three things: deregulation, the war on drugs, and public access to GPS satellites. The jury is still out on the wisdom of the first two initiatives, but overall GPS has been a boon to humanity, and changed the way the world navigates. The effect on trucking, itself, has been profound.

Truck drivers and GPS were meant for each other. It’s a tool that can save fuel, money, unnecessary u-turns, and lost time spent in traffic snarls. But you’ve got to get one that’s specifically made for trucks and commercial drivers. A typical GPS unit designed for four-wheelers could get you in a lot of trouble.

One problem is that some drivers regard their GPS as a kind of autopilot. Last year a truck driver ran into a well-marked low bridge in Moncton, N.B., while paying attention to the GPS instead of the warning signs. Apparently the unit had been set on “car mode” rather than “truck mode.”

Over-reliance on the GPS can lead to problems even on a designated truck route. Road conditions and obstacles can crop up unexpectedly. And your GPS can be wrong or misleading at times. I suggest carrying a recent road atlas or street guide just in case.

A spate of bridge collisions, particularly in New York State, has prompted the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to issue a warning against truck drivers using GPS intended for passenger vehicles. A 2009 study pointed out that 80% of low bridge collisions in that state were the result of commercial drivers using inappropriate navigation devices. The FMCSA also wants to see entry-level commercial drivers receiving GPS tutorials as part of their training package.

Some component of GPS technology is usually at the heart of most fleet management programs. Ironically, while I was recently checking out several GPS units, I in turn was getting tracked by the GPS located in the scanner I’m required to carry when doing city pick ups.

My concern was with personalized, trucker-friendly GPS units. I managed to obtain three state-of-the-art contenders and put them through their paces doing city and highway work: Garmin’s dezl 760 LMT; the Magellan RoadMate 537OT-LMB; and the Rand McNally Intelliroute TND 720. All of the above are among the newest devices on the market and were specifically intended for trucking applications.

First off, it’s not a truck GPS unless it lets you input the weight and dimensions of the rig you’re driving. It should also ask if you are hauling dangerous goods (HazMat for US readers), and what kind of dangerous goods. Most of the trucker GPS systems on the market include functions that duplicate the logbook or electronic on-board recorder (EOBR). I suspect many drivers don’t bother using this as it’s just another redundant task. But all three devices allow one to input and change drivers, and alternate “on” and “off duty” cycles.

But I like the IFTA function (Fuel Tax Log) on the Garmin because of its simplicity. The Rand also allows you to log and record fuel purchases with lots more details, but seems to be slightly more complicated to operate.

What do truckers want?

Truckers want clear, precise instructions. In a glance they want to be able to visualize their route: the highways they will be taking, secondary roads, toll roads (if necessary), weigh scales (and how to get around them); and of course they want to know about low bridges before they smack into them. Road closures, detours, traffic reports and lastly weather conditions are all considerations that most drivers regard as being important.

Touch screens or rather “tap” screens are the norm for these units. I suppose, theoretically, tapping on the screen and finger-scrolling across the maps is not considered distracted driving.

And some level of connectivity to cell or smartphones is available on all three. The Rand McNally unit has opted for WiFi instead of Bluetooth, but Bluetooth seems important at least to users of the Garmin and Magellan units, although the Garmin can only be paired with an Android device, at this time.

Sunnie Tsai, Magellan’s product marketing director, stresses the importance of the Bluetooth function on their RoadMate.

“The cell phone has become part of our lives. We do want our drivers eyes on the road so Magellan is using the Bluetooth to pair the GPS and cell phone and turn the GPS device into a speaker phone.”

RoadMate drivers can connect to a phone number by tapping the phone icon. The device can be programmed to show a visual Alert when receiving a text. And pre-canned return messages are available such as, “I am driving now and will respond when I reach my destination at such and such a time (the time taken from the GPS’ estimated time of arrival data).

Highway 30, where are you?

Somehow I got the idea that GPS mapping would be more reliable than road maps. After all, it’s connected to space, isn’t it? And those satellites see everything, don’t they? My first disillusionment came when I was looking for an address in Ville St. Pierre, an industrial area tucked in beside Hwy. 20 and the CN rail yards in south Montreal.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Eraserhead, this could be a twin location: steam belching out of chemical tanks and rail cars clanging in a murky industrial underworld. Anyway, I crossed the tracks on Rue Norman and the Garmin was convinced I was going to hit a bridge. The warnings on the screen got more and more frantic, until I was right under the ghost bridge. But there was no bridge!

Perhaps there is a mix-up with a map from an earlier era. At the end of the road there’s a very tight turn restricted to 45-ft. trailers. Still, I’d rather be alerted to the presence of a ghost bridge than not know about an impending collision with the real thing. But mistakes are not that uncommon in the world of GPS. If I got the same message as a novice driver not knowing the area, I would have been very concerned and frantically trying to find a detour.

All three GPS failed the Hwy. 30 test and this was a real letdown. When a trucker purchases a GPS for his or her job, there is an expectation that all the important highways should be on there. However Hwy. 30, a toll road and a new bypass around the south shore of Montreal that opened in December 2012, did not make it onto any of these GPS mappings — and this is an important trucking route.

There have been some other changes in the Montreal area: Hwy. 540 has been changed to Hwy. 40, and some interchanges have been moved, ie., Hwy. 15 north off Hwy. 40 eastbound is now an exit on the right instead of the left. But missing Hwy. 30 seems a big oversight. The only place I could find it was on the 2013 Rand McNally Road Atlas. It appears there as a major highway but doesn’t show as a toll route.

To find out why Hwy. 30 was missing in action, I contacted Navteq (owned by Nokia), the vendor of the maps used by all three GPS manufacturers. When I asked about the missing highway, I got this response from a Nokia rep: “We can confirm that we do have the road you mentioned in our database. It was put there last December 2012. Following that, our customers must update the maps on their devices.”

But Amy Krouse, publicist for Rand McNally takes exception to the above comments. “Our team is having a little discrepancy with what you were told. It’s a pretty extensive process to ‘put the data in their products.’ It may be in their databases but may not be QA’d through to provide to customers on their end or ours,” she explains.

Jon Hosler, product manager for Garmin’s dezl line of truck GPS, suggests that part of the problem with getting the data in a timely manner from Navteq is that a low priority may be given to roadway mapping on Nokia’s part.

“It’s purely a matter of getting and processing the data. For them it’s a small revenue stream, for us it’s important because (customers) blame Garmin if a road is missing.”

All three units format easily for multiple routing, fastest time, quickest route, nuances like that. Garmin has a split screen when approaching a complex interchange, half shows the road map, while the other side shows highway signs sitting above the correct lanes you should be in. Magellan has also got the “correct” lane screen that pops up at certain junctures.

Around Toronto, I have my favourite routes and was surprised at some of the GPS choices being so different. But really, routing is like a chess game with several different choices. For the most part I tried to stay on highways or major roads.

The GPS makers buy the traffic info from various providers. These are picked up in major cities from an FM signal and transmitted to the GPS screen. I liked the highway traffic mapping (yellow for slow, red for very slow), and I found the delay times fairly accurate on both the Magellan and Garmin. To get on-board traffic on the Rand required a special antenna ($79).

The comparison between the three is unequal in that the Magellan was a five-inch screen while the others were seven-inch. Rand is coming out with a five-inch right about the time we’re going to press. It’s nice to have the big screen, but if you’re slip-seating tractors the five-inch is quite a lot more portable, as the box is half the size.

Best value?

Of the three GPS units tested I thought the Magellan RoadMate was the best value at a suggested retail price of $279. It did most of the important stuff the other units do, was fairly quick, and had nice crisp graphics. Lifetime maps and traffic means you’ll never have to buy anything for an upgrade. It’s also a fairly simple unit to get started on.

Garmin’s dezl 760 LMT ($399) also got high marks for simplicity and user-friendliness. It seemed to be the fastest unit when switching views or zooming in or out. One advantage to pairing with an Android phone is that you can allow a customer to track your truck’s movements for a specified time – sort of like customized GPS tracking. Various other services are available through the Android connection, like weather radar and enhanced traffic for a moderate fee.

Rand McNally is the king of the mapmakers so you would expect something good from its truck GPS. This is the most robust of the three with a heavy-duty mounting bracket and well-padded viewing screen. It seems to be the most complex of the three with some extensive databases, but it’s not quite as easy to navigate around as the other units. Not having traffic is problematic, and I would probably go for the expensive aerial if this unit was going to be my regular companion. I also didn’t think the close-up graphics of interchanges were as compelling as they could be. Lastly, the calibrations between metric and imperial measures were off slightly, so that a speed limit of 100 km/h appeared as 99, and 70 km/h as 69. Not a big deal, just slightly annoying.

But can they find Tim Horton’s?

Okay, so the GPS may be able to navigate you across the continent, and keep your big truck out of trouble, but how fast can they find a Tim Horton’s within, say, six kilometres of my house? Merely typing in “Tim Horton’s” in the respective GPS databases turned up a myriad of Tim’s in all directions almost instantaneously. The Magellan and Garmin found 16 Tim’s while the Rand McNally found 13. Not bad, as this is a very important category.


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1 Comment » for Ghost bridges and missing highways
  1. Leith says:

    I use a Rand GPS in conjunction with Google Nav. Nav is always up to date and knows all of the new or renamed roads as well real time traffic updates. Of course, it isn’t truck specific, so that is where the Rand comes in.

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