Global Positioning Systems (GPS), formerly known as NAVSTAR GPS, owes its inception and development to two engineers, Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson. Working for the US Defence department, they crafted a satellite system that can feed non-stop navigational data for military purposes.
Essentially, GPS is a tracking system comprised of more than 20 or satellites orbiting the earth at different locations, on six or so different paths. Each satellite has an atomic clock synchronized to the time on earth. Data on location and time are transmitted to a receiving GPS device from three to four satellites at the same time to pinpoint the position and direction in three dimensions. This is particularly useful for both submarines and fighter jet pilots, where being strategically in the right place for combat is essential when charting unfamiliar territory.
The use of GPS today has extended beyond the confines of military applications to the general population. Accuracy for civilian use was initially restricted for security purposes but this changed in 2000 when the military no longer removed the practice of blurring the signals. Since then, GPS has become more affordable and has worked its way into navigational portable devices for hikers and motor vehicle drivers, particularly helping those that regularly explore the unknown or those that struggle with directions.
GPS Mishaps overseas
The development of GPS has continued into mobile devices, surprisingly with a number of incidents that question the over reliance on such a device. Although it has shown to be a great companion when on a road trip holiday, it is still important to not ignore road signs and common sense. News of GPS mishaps have been reported around the world which highlights the importance of not following its directions blindly. Last year, Japanese tourists rented a car to drive to North Stradbroke Island in Australia. The tourists followed the directions of their GPS navigation system faithfully, and drove straight into mud and water in the bay. Another story involved three ladies in a rented vehicle on their way to a boat near Seattle getting stuck in a swamp.
Vehicle GPS uses in Hong Kong
Closer to home, news of vehicle GPS misguidance rarely appears in the headlines or news in Hong Kong. Irrespective of whether it is cultural to not disclose such embarrassing moments, the reason may be down to questions of accuracy and effective usage in the region. It is generally known that a GPS system performs best when the GPS device receives signals from a clear line of sight from the satellites without any obstructions. However high rise buildings, highway flyovers and mountains can impact the quality of the signal and therefore the accuracy of the directions produced by the system. Ken Chung from Kwiksure, attributes these signal disrupting factors as Hong Kong’s main reason for opting not to use GPS devices; “In my experience, not many people use GPS as there are too many tall buildings often blocking the signal and so accuracy of the directions becomes an issue.”
Given that the approximate total area of Hong Kong is just under 1,100 square kilometers, the region is almost twice the size of Singapore but still considered small. Chung believes that the size of Hong Kong makes it easy for many motorists to become familiar with the area they frequently travel to and they therefore tend to rely more on road signs to get to their destination; “Hong Kong is quite small and so there is little need for the use of the GPS in this respect”.
In addition to navigation, inbuilt vehicle GPS has also found its place as a device to find stolen vehicles and act as a deterrent to thieves. “Rather than using GPS for navigation, I think its use here lies in its tracking ability as it is definitely useful as an anti-theft device”, added Chung. In the event of a car being stolen, police can gain access to the GPS navigation system with the consent of the driver, to pinpoint the location of the car in question. This was the case for certain car models that were prone to theft, which led to some insurers reluctant to provide comprehensive coverage unless the applicant had a GPS device built into the vehicle. “In the past few years, there was an upsurge in the theft of certain car models and even now, certain insurance companies require drivers to install GPS onto their vehicle in order to be eligible for insurance”, emphasized Chung.
When navigating on the roads with GPS, motorists are encouraged to supplement directions with a map and common sense, ignoring commands if they do not make sense or are in opposition to road signs. Vehicle GPS devices are not only useful for navigation and as an anti-theft device, some manufacturers have expanded the functions to alerting the driver if they are over the speed limit and will even cut power to the engine should an accident occur. However, for any tracking device, issues of data privacy laws come into play particularly as authorities and other third parties may access data to your whereabouts, especially in a criminal case. With this in mind, reverting back to the good old fashioned map and planning ahead for a trip might be a preferable choice for the individuals who want privacy.