Wanted: adaptive navigation app

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I don't like GPS navigation systems much. Here's my take on what's wrong with them and how it might be fixed.

Problem: your navigation app thinks you're dumb[edit]

It is widely acknowledged (and is my personal experience) that a GPS navigation system makes you dumber. Once you have one, it dulls your sense of where anything is or how the geography around you is organized. I find this particularly distressing because spacial memory is one of the things us humans are really good at (cf. method of loci). Wouldn't it be great if instead of being a crutch, your GPS actually made you more geographically savvy?

The basic problem is that your navigation system doesn't know how competent you are. It assumes you don't know how to get onto the highway one mile from your home, so it gives you turn by turn directions for how to get out of the driveway. Ironically, I find that such detailed instructions actually make it more likely that I'll take a wrong turn off the freeway since I don't have the grand plan in mind, and therefore look to the navigation system for confirmation of the tiniest details. Instead, I'd like to know that the basic plan for my drive is "210 east to 57 south to 5 south", and have the navigation system stay out of the way unless I actually need it. It's much more enjoyable and less stressful to follow the road signs than to have the GPS telling to how to navigate the forks connecting one highway to the next.

Solution: it should pay more attention[edit]

But how could it possibly know when I need it? By not ignoring the wealth of data it already has access to. Given the history of routes I've driven under the guidance of my navigation app, it should know that I'm quite capable of getting onto 110 south without additional instructions.

Based on the data it already has, it should be able to guess how well I know how to get around various areas and present me with much sparser driving instructions, like a human would, indicating only the major roads that I should be taking. Ideally, these instructions would be spaced near the limit of my capacity. That way, I experience the joy of remembering something I'd almost forgotten, or solving a navigational problem that's within my grasp but doesn't insult my intelligence. Moreover, the navigation system gets much more information this way:

  • If I successfully get between the points it told me to, it can be more confident that I know the area.
  • If I ask for more detailed instructions (which of course I should be able to do), it learns that it overestimated my ability. Moreover, I more attentively learn how to execute the task ("oh, that's how I get from X to Y").
  • If I screw up by doing something very suboptimal, it can make note of that fact and point it out to me now and in the future. Next time I travel this route, perhaps it would remind me to avoid that particular mistake.

Aside from getting me to use my brain more to remember stuff and solve little problems (which is rewarding), providing me with sparser directions gets me to use my eyes more since I look for cues that help me out. So I expect such a system would make for a safer drive.

Other comments and ideas[edit]

Additional data[edit]

Your navigation app is probably on your phone, not in your car. If this is the case, there's probably even more data available from the various times you use your GPS.


Note that this approach can be done entirely on the client side. If you don't want to tell some company about how familiar you are with an area, you don't need to. The information about what routes you've travelled and how well you've learned them can be stored locally, and the sparseness of the directions can be computed locally.


If people aren't worried about privacy so much, then there's definite potential to improve things by making use of aggregate information collected from users. Remember how I suggested the app could remind you to avoid some mistake you made in the past? Well, if it had access to other people's logs, it could figure out that you're likely to make the mistake and warn you to avoid it in the first place. It could also make use of information about how fast other people learn things to more accurately predict how you'll react.