Death by GPS

The Jarbidge Mountains of Nevada, where the Chretiens got stranded.

One early morning in March 2011, Albert Chretien and his wife, Rita, loaded their Chevrolet Astro van and drove away from their home in Penticton, British Columbia. Their destination was Las Vegas, where Albert planned to attend a trade show. They crossed the border and, somewhere in northern Oregon, they picked up Interstate 84.

The straightest route would be to take I-84 to Twin Falls, Idaho, near the Nevada border, and then follow US Route 93 all the way to Vegas. Although US 93 would take them through Jackpot, Nevada, the town near the Idaho state line where they planned to spend the first night, they looked at a roadmap and decided to exit I-84 before that junction. They would choose a scenic road less traveled, Idaho State Highway 51, which heads due south away from the I-84 corridor, crossing the border several miles to the west. The Chretiens figured there had to be a turnoff from Idaho 51 that would lead them east to US 93.

Albert and Rita had known each other since high school. During their thirty-eight years of marriage, they had rarely been apart. They even worked together, managing their own small excavation business. A few days before the trip, Albert had purchased a Magellan GPS unit for the van. They had not yet asked it for directions, but their plan wasn’t panning out. As the day went on and the shadows grew longer, they were not finding an eastward passage. They decided it was time to consult the Magellan. Checking their roadmap, they determined the nearest town was Mountain City, Nevada, so they entered it as the destination into their GPS unit. The directions led them onto a small dirt road near an Idaho ghost town and eventually to a confusing three-way crossroads. They chose the one that seemed to point in the direction they wanted to go. And here their troubles began.

If Albert had been navigating the route in the daytime, he might have noticed that it was taking them through the high desert as it rose toward shimmering snowy peaks in the distance. In the dark, the changes were so subtle that they barely registered. And besides, he was on a road—“a pretty good road,” the Elko County sheriff would later say, that “slowly goes bad.” Through the night, it carried them higher into the Jarbidge Mountains, deeper into the backcountry. The road twisted, dipped, rose again, skirting canyons walled with sagebrush. It was the kind of terrain for which the Chretiens’ van was not designed.

Several days passed before their family and friends realized that Albert and Rita had never arrived at the trade show. The couple had not informed anyone of their detour, so nobody knew where to look for them. The manhunt involved police agencies in four states, scouring 3,000 miles of highway, with the most intense efforts in eastern Oregon, where they had used a credit card in a convenience store. On April 8, just shy of three weeks since Albert Chretien left Highway 51, authorities announced they were scaling back search and rescue efforts, a tacit admission that wherever the Chretiens had gone, it was too late to find them.

What happened to the Chretiens is so common in some places that it has a name. The park rangers at Death Valley National Park in California call it “death by GPS.” It describes what happens when your GPS fails you, not by being wrong, exactly, but often by being too right. It does such a good job of computing the most direct route from Point A to Point B that it takes you down roads which barely exist, or were used at one time and abandoned, or are not suitable for your car, or which require all kinds of local knowledge that would make you aware that making that turn is bad news.

Death Valley’s vast arid landscape and temperature extremes make it a particularly dangerous place to rely on GPS. In the summer of 2009, Alicia Sanchez, a twenty-eight-year-old nurse, was driving through the park with her six-year-old son, Carlos, when her GPS directed her onto a vaguely defined road that she followed for 20 miles, unaware that it had no outlet. A week later, a ranger discovered Sanchez’s Jeep, buried in sand up to its axles, with sos spelled out in medical tape on the windshield. “She came running toward me and collapsed in my arms,” the ranger wrote in a report. “Her lips were very dry and chapped with bleeding blisters and her tongue appeared to be swollen with very little saliva formation. I walked over to the Jeep and looked inside. I saw a boy slumped in the front seat with obvious signs of death.” Mother and son had wandered over ten miles of desert in search of water, and had resorted to drinking their urine. They had tried to share a Pop-Tart a few days earlier, but their mouths were too dry to swallow. As he lay dying, Carlos grew delirious, telling his mother he was “speaking to my grandfather in heaven.”

Most death-by-GPS incidents do not involve actual deaths—or even serious injuries. They are accidents or accidental journeys brought about by an uncritical acceptance of turn-by-turn commands: the Japanese tourists in Australia who drove their car into the ocean while attempting to reach North Stradbroke Island from the mainland; the man who drove his BMW down a narrow path in a village in Yorkshire, England, and nearly over a cliff; the woman in Bellevue, Washington, who drove her car into a lake that their GPS said was a road; the Swedish couple who asked GPS to guide them to the Mediterranean island of Capri, but instead arrived at the Italian industrial town of Carpi; the elderly woman in Belgium who tried to use GPS to guide her to her home, 90 miles away, but instead drove hundreds of miles to Zagreb, only realizing her mistake when she noticed the street signs were in Croatian.

These types of mishaps often elicit sheer bafflement. The local Italian tourist official noted that although “Capri is an island,” the unfortunate Swedes “did not even wonder why they didn’t cross any bridge or take any boat;” the first responders in Bellevue were amazed that the women “wouldn’t question driving into a puddle that doesn’t seem to end.” For their part, the victims often couch their experiences in language that attributes to GPS a peculiar sort of agency. GPS “told us we could drive down there,” one of the Japanese tourists explained. “It kept saying it would navigate us a road.” The BMW driver echoed these words, almost verbatim: “It kept insisting the path was a road.”

Something is happening to us. Anyone who has driven a car through an unfamiliar place can attest to how easy it is to let GPS do all the work. We have come to depend on GPS, a technology that, in theory, makes it impossible to get lost. Not only are we still getting lost, we may actually be losing a part of ourselves.

The modern era of GPS car navigation began after Operation Desert Storm in 1990, and no GPS startup exploited its potential better than a Kansas City-area company called Garmin. Gary Burrell and Min Kao were engineers at AlliedSignal helping to develop a GPS receiver. (A prototype was on board the Rutan 76 Voyager, the record-setting aircraft that in 1986 became the first to circumnavigate the world with no stops or refueling.) After the project was discontinued, Burrell and Kao formed a new firm in 1989, its name a portmanteau of their given names.

Garmin was able to design components that made the most of limited processing power, especially in the acquisition of satellite signals. Even at the end of the nineties, GPS devices designed for cars required the user to tediously download maps. Over the next few years, map data made directions more accurate, better processors made it easier and quicker for algorithms to compute turn-by-turn directions, and memory improvements finally put all the maps in the box. Garmin’s C550 receivers, which hit the market in 2006, achieved full functionality. “Once solid-state memory had enough density to hold the entire country out of the box, that’s when the market really took off,” says Jay Dee Krull, one of Garmin’s earliest hires.

By 2006, Garmin controlled 60 percent of the US market for navigation equipment. Americans bought five million Garmin GPS receivers that year, as the company posted $1.68 billion in sales, a 64 percent increase from 2005. Fully half of the company’s revenue came from car GPS units, with sales in that segment growing at an astounding 140 percent annually.

As Garmin enjoyed spectacular growth, the popularity of GPS navigation led to renewed interest in how these devices were affecting the behavior of users. But instead of just investigating navigation systems’ design and effectiveness, some experts confronted the question of whether these new navigation systems might be weakening our cognitive map. Some of the widely praised attributes of navigation devices, especially their ability to present information in smoothly filtered ways that removed us from the bother of map-reading, came under closer scrutiny.
A 2006 German study, conducted by a group of psychologists and artificial intelligence experts, tested the hypothesis that users of a navigation system will remember less about an environment than those who use a map. Participants in the experiment walked a predetermined route through the zoo in the town of Saarbrücken carrying handheld computers connected by Bluetooth to a computer carried by an experimenter who followed several meters behind. He transmitted directions to the next segment of the route, beginning with a photo of the subject’s current location. In addition to the directions, one group of subjects also received visual cues, such as a map and red line that appeared on the photo; others received only verbal instructions; and a third group received a combination of verbal and visual cues. A control group walked the route guided only by a crude map that showed the route with no landmarks, along with the same photos shown to the test subjects at the start of each segment.

Later, all participants were given a two-part test to gauge how well they remembered the route. They were asked to recall what directions they had taken—at what points they had turned left, right, and so on. The second part tested what the researchers called survey knowledge: “the spatial relationships between locations.” The participants were shown thumbnail pictures of the intersections, and instructed to place them on a road map of the zoo. The researchers were essentially testing participants’ ability to construct a cognitive strip map and a cognitive comprehensive map.

The data revealed a couple of interesting insights. First, while it seems obvious why map users would have better overall knowledge of the area they walked, why would they also have a better memory of the route itself? The researchers reasoned that the map users had to engage in more active learning, having to match the photos they were given of the route with the markings on the map. The researchers had predicted—wrongly, as it turned out—that the two test groups who received visual aids that provided spatial context would outscore the verbal-only group in the survey knowledge test. Instead, they concluded that because this information was not required for the act of wayfinding, the subjects were not forced to actively process it.

A similar study, conducted in Japan and published in 2008, involved actual GPS devices. Three groups of walkers were studied as they navigated routes in the city of Kashiwa. One group learned the route from direct experience, shown it by a guide who took them from start to finish, and then back via a circuitous route; the subjects were then instructed to walk from start to finish again, with no assistance. Another group was given GPS devices, with the complete route highlighted on the screen, while another was given a paper map with the beginning and end points marked, but no highlighted route. The results showed the GPS users exhibiting the weakest wayfinding acumen. They traveled at a slower speed and made more stops to reorient themselves than the walkers in the other two groups. They rated the overall task as more difficult than the group that learned the route by walking it. In post-walk tests, they had the lowest scores on memory of the configuration and topology of the route. The researchers concluded that the GPS system “was less effective than the maps and direct experience as support for smooth navigation.”

A Cornell University study published the same year looked at GPS’s effect on drivers, and reached similar conclusions regarding how GPS users “attend to objects in the paths they take toward their destination.” The study “found evidence for loss of environmental engagement . . . the process of interpreting the world, adding value to it, and turning space into place is reduced to a certain extent and drivers remain detached from the indifferent environments that surround them.” Their conclusion: “GPS eliminated much of the need to pay attention.”

In the years when GPS auto navigation began to take off, brain experts were making important breakthroughs in the study of how spatial information is processed. Their findings suggest that there is a physical dimension to the cognitive map.

The first hint came from rat experiments performed in the early 1970s. John O’Keefe, a neuroscientist, reported that when rats were placed in certain areas of a room, cells in the hippocampus, which he labeled “place cells,” were activated. More than thirty years later, two Norwegian neuroscientists, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, expanded on O’Keefe’s work. Their experiments demonstrated that when rats moved around the room, “grid cells” in a part of the brain linked to the hippocampus rearranged themselves based on the rat’s environment. When a rat entered a new room, the cells lit up in a spatial pattern that corresponded to the location of the rat’s head and the room’s borders.

In 2010, a team at University College London confirmed the existence of grid cells in humans, forming a tidy geometric pattern. To conceive of how they behave, imagine walking into a room with a tiled floor. Some of the tiles, evenly spaced, light up when you step on them. “It is as if grid cells provide a cognitive map of space,” Caswell Barry, a coauthor of the study, explained. “In fact, these cells are like latitude and longitude lines we’re all familiar with on normal maps, but instead of using square grid lines it seems the brain uses triangles.” (Further research revealed they are more like hexagons.) Other research at UCL has isolated two parts of the brain that help us as we navigate an environment, with one part noting the distance to the destination as the crow flies, and the other calculating the actual distance of the route.

If we do indeed have a kind of innate GPS, what happens to our brains as we transition into a world where these kinds of calculations are unnecessary, when GPS does it all for us? The short answer is we don’t know yet, but there are some rumblings among cognitive experts to the effect that we may be undergoing fundamental changes.

“Physical maps help us build cognitive maps,” Julia Frankenstein of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg has argued. Frankenstein was lead author on an experiment done using residents of the German town of Tübingen. Wearing head-mounted displays, they navigated a 3-D virtual reality model of their hometown. At certain points along the way, they were asked to point in the direction of well-known landmarks that were not visible from the subjects’ current perceived location. The results showed that the pointing was most accurate when the subjects were facing north. The greater the deviation from a northward orientation, the less accurate they were.

The participants were linking their perceived location to its position on city maps that they retrieved from memory—which, like most maps, were oriented to the north. The cognitive process the participants went through was, in a sense, more complicated than necessary, since they had spent a greater chunk of their lives navigating the city than looking at maps of it—and most of the locations they were asked to point out did not appear on maps of Tübingen. Some participants reported that they had not looked at map of the city for decades. The knowledge they had acquired just by navigating their city day after day was multisensory and tinged with memories of real experience, whereas a map is flat, and the only sense it appeals to is visual. Yet, when asked to organize the information they held, they still reflexively translated it into broad survey knowledge, a bird’s-eye view. They willed themselves onto a map.

One important thing maps offer, the researchers noted, is stability. They aggregate information about the environment into one reference frame, and organize multiple navigational experiences into one reliable structure. Their two-dimensional models are a convenient catchall for our 3-D existence. “Our results support the popular belief that people have access to something like a map in their heads, and suggest that . . . this map is oriented north,” the study concluded.

Other cognitive scientists have reached similar conclusions. Research has shown that when we are presented with an object, our interpretation of its shape depends on which part of the object is perceived to be the “top.” If the object is rotated so that another part is in the “top” position, our perception of the object’s shape can shift dramatically. This is probably because when we see what is in front of us, we seek out the direction of “up,” since gravity is such a powerful reference axis.

Timothy McNamara and Christine Valiquette, both psychologists, have argued that something similar happens when we enter a new environment: “in effect, conceptual north is assigned to the layout, creating privileged directions in the environment.” Unlike the vertical plane, so closely associated with gravity, the “ground plane,” defined by the objects that surround us, has no such privileged direction, so we determine it based on our perspective. When we recall the environment later, “the dominant cue is egocentric experience”—that is, we assign a new “north.”

Spending our days moving through various environments, we fill in the details of our cognitive map based on our egocentric experiences. Can the granular detail of that map fade through misuse? “The problem with GPS systems is, in my eyes, that we are not forced to remember or process the information—as it is permanently ‘at hand,’ we need not think or decide ourselves,” Frankenstein says. “The more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps.” Life becomes a series of strip maps: “we see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way . . . developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.”
Moreover, this suggests that we absolve ourselves from even having egocentric experiences to build upon. In some general sense, we lack reference points, stable spots that anchor our position in the world. Without these authoritative positions that, in a very real sense, add meaning to our world, we are left floating. Perhaps there is something to the explanation, by those who have driven their cars into rivers and over cliffs, that GPS told them to do it.

The next frontier of research would be to investigate whether GPS use can cause physiological changes. A British study, published in 2006, made headlines by revealing that the brains of London taxi drivers, whose licensing requires that they demonstrate recall of 25,000 city streets, plus the locations of landmarks and points of interest, contain more gray matter in the region of the hippocampus responsible for complex spatial representation than the brains of London bus drivers. Brain scan results from retired taxi drivers suggested, without being conclusive, that the volume of gray matter decreases when this ability is no longer required.

The idea that something similar may be happening on a large scale, as GPS use becomes more ubiquitous, is plausible enough to be taken seriously. More recent research has demonstrated that someone who does intensive exercises to improve navigational skills can exhibit changes in the hippocampus. “Based on that, I think it’s possible that if you went to someone doing a lot of active navigation, but just relying on GPS—the assumption being that they’d be minimizing the brain’s use for navigation—you’d actually get a reduction in that area,” says Hugo Spiers, one of the scientists who conducted the London cab driver study. “I would love to know,” he adds, but cautions that conducting a rigorous study with human subjects, controlling for all the variables that affect brain function, would be extremely difficult and probably prohibitively expensive.

Even if we were to discover that GPS use is reshaping the physical contours of our brains, there would still be an elusive, unknowable quality to death by GPS. The presence of grid cells notwithstanding, our personal cognitive map is not reducible to gray matter. It remains locked away in the black box of the nervous system, accessible when we need it but never fully unfurling for us to examine. Like Tolman said, maps are pictures of reality, not replicas. Our own personal cognitive map is the prism through which we glimpse that reality. How can we even tell if it is narrowing into a strip map? We have no other means of perception.

Even if we recognize a narrowing map as the only explanation for someone’s death by GPS, what have we really learned? In March 2015, Iftikhar and Zohra Hussain were driving from their home in Chicago to Indiana to visit family. As Iftikhar approached a bridge that spanned the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, he ignored orange cones, “Road Closed” signs, and other deterrents meant to keep cars away, since the bridge had been closed for repairs since 2009. The car plunged off the bridge, dropping nearly 40 feet to the ground near the water. Iftikhar managed to escape before it burst into flames. Zohra died from her burns.

A local paper, citing a police investigator, reported that Iftikhar “was apparently paying more attention to the navigation system than what was in front of him.” Assuming that were true, the question still remains: what was going through his head?

Nearly two months after the Chretiens disappeared, three hunters in an all-terrain vehicle, somewhere in the Independence Mountains, came across a Chevy Astro. The three—a husband and wife, and the woman’s father—cautiously approached. From inside the vehicle, a woman wearing a plaid shirt and jeans managed with great effort to open the sliding door and poke her head out. The older man flashed her a friendly “A-OK” symbol by joining his thumb and forefinger in a circle. Rita Chretien shook her head, barely able to rasp the words, “No, I’m not OK.”

The Chretiens had remained on the road that night, eventually realizing they had no choice but to press on. The road was too narrow and treacherous for them to turn around. At an elevation of 6,000 feet, the Astro had slid into a gully and gotten stuck in the mud. In the morning, they discovered that the road soon narrowed into a trail. It still looked to them like they were heading in the direction of Mountain City, which they estimated was about 27 miles away. So they began walking, venturing out a few miles and then returning to the van as night approached, the temperature dropped, and the rain arrived.

The next morning, they decided that Albert would set off on foot again. Rita had injured her knee on the hike the day before and found it hard to walk. Albert figured it would take him between two and three days to reach Mountain City. Dividing their meager supplies, they decided that Al should take the bag of chocolate-covered almonds for energy. Rita’s take included a small sandwich bag filled with trail mix, some hard candy, and fish oil. Al wrote down the GPS coordinates for Mountain City, and took the Magellan with him.

Rita carefully rationed her food, eating as little as she could each day. She melted snow and gathered water from a nearby creek. She passed the days praying, meditating, writing in her journal, reading books and her Bible, and sleeping as much as possible to conserve energy. She wrote notes in case she was found: “Please help. Stuck.” “We’re headed to Vegas. Got lost.” “No food. No gas. . . . Al went to get help. Find Mountain City. Did not return! . . . Maybe died along way?” One note gave her present GPS coordinates. She grew too weak to walk to the stream, and drank what water she could from puddles. Just before she was rescued, she decided she had one more day left in her. She put on fresh socks, wrapped a blanket around her, and prepared to die.

Her rescuers gave her what little food and water they had, but realized she was too weak to ride on an ATV. One remembered a ranch eight miles away, and they asked if she could hold out for one more hour. They found the ranch, called 911, and led the sheriff’s chopper to Rita’s location. By the time they reached her, she had torn down the notes and packed her bags. She was smiling, and the rescuers swore she’d fixed up her hair. She was airlifted to a hospital, where she was gradually reintroduced to food and spent Mother’s Day with her children. Rita Chretien, fifty-six years old, with no outdoor experience and next to no provisions, had somehow survived a trial that would have taxed the most hardened survivalist.

In December 2012, nearly two years after her ordeal, Rita and four of her friends took another road journey, what she called a “trip of gratitude.” She wanted to visit the regions where people had organized searches for the Chretiens, to meet as many of them as possible and say thank you. She also had a chance to see her rescuers again. They had been back to the site where they found her several times, trying to find where Albert had gone. Now they wanted to take her back there, too. She was initially dubious, but accepted the invitation. Little had changed. The Astro’s tracks were still visible. “I showed them where I got my water,” she says today. “It was very emotional, seeing my old fire pit.”

She was also able to meet the man from the Elko County sheriff’s office who had organized the search party in the area. “I had tried to figure out how on earth we got lost,” she says. “He said he realized we had followed exactly what the GPS said, because he went and followed what I told him, and from there ended up exactly where we ended up.”

Exactly one week after returning from her gratitude trip, she received a call from the sheriff. Albert’s remains had been found some seven miles from the van. He had made it a little more than halfway to Mountain City before succumbing to hypothermia and exhaustion. The Magellan, designed to run off of a car’s battery power, had probably fizzled soon after he began his journey.

Rita remains remarkably serene and philosophical regarding her experience. “I’m not so sure I want to venture out on strange roads anymore,” she says, laughing quietly. “I just stick to the main roads now.” In 2015, she remarried.

In his final hours, Albert’s course had veered north. He ascended 2,600 vertical feet, through snowdrifts taller than he was. “He did a lot of unnecessary climbing,” a sheriff’s deputy noted. “He was heading literally for the summit of the mountain.”

Rita thinks she knows why. “I believe Albert climbed toward the peak to find shelter, but also to have a good look around,” she says. “To see where to head from there.”

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