TCS Daily

Amazing Gracie

By Nina Yablok - September 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Hi, my name is Nina, and I'm a planner. But I don't really want to join Planners Anonymous, because planning doesn't really interfere with my life -- unless you count the mirth and merriment it causes those near and dear to me.

You might be wondering, what is this woman blathering about? Planning is not an addiction like alcohol or drugs. No, it's not -- but some of us take planning to greater heights than others. And do create an entire subculture around it. And do spend a lot of money on organizational paraphernalia. Ok, so it's not a harmful addiction, but for some of us it's a serious hobby, and for the true diehards, it reaches a religious fervor.

You don't have to be one of those near and dear to guess that we happily signed away an extra $8.00 a day to get Hertz "NeverLost" GPS system in our rental car. Nor would anyone have trouble guessing that my first short round of driving with this on-board navigation system, from the airport to the hotel, ended with my yelling at my husband to turn the *&%$^%$%#! thing off and hand me my Yahoo map (from that day's color coded folder, of course).

However, I do love technology, and think that when it's working right, it can set us free. So I gave the GPS system a second try on our first outing after we had checked into the hotel. I waited till the GPS had fully calculated our route and compared it with my Yahoo-derived, Nina confirmed, route. And sure enough, the GPS had come up with the same route. Ok, point for GPS, let's see how it works in reality.

Those of you who are, like my husband, perfectly happy driving with someone who has a map in hand or knows the route, and just being told "turn right, up there at the gas station," can't fully appreciate the leap of faith, and the letting go of old habits, that I went through trusting the GPS to tell me step by step how to get where I wanted to go. My instinct is to know the whole route first. But I took a breath and, figuring we were on vacation, not trying to make a business meeting, I just started to follow the GPS' directions.

Dong Dings and Ding Dongs

The GPS that Hertz uses appears to be a Magellan 750-series GPS that doesn't seem to be seriously "dumbed down" for use by renters. It comes with a handy-dandy guide printed on a four by eight inch laminated card that dangles from the unit. We never even looked at the instructions. Once you turn the unit on, it's very intuitive.

I of course had all of the exact street addresses for each destination we might want to visit, in my color-coded file folders. My husband, who gets frustrated and cranky when I ask him to read a map, happily entered the address and watched as the unit obtains first one, then two and at one point up to 4 satellite feeds. Then the ever-patient voice started with her clear and succinct directions.

"Right hand turn in point four miles," she would say, as the arrow, which represents our car, and us proceeded down the clearly marked route on the display. Never getting annoyed at delays due to traffic or red lights, the unit announced, "approaching right turn" and then the melodic dong ding sounded just as we were at the turn point (dong ding is a right turn, ding dong is a left).

I'm sure some psychologist got a $100,000 grant for studying just what ding dong is the most soothing while remaining recognizable over, under or through the Led Zeppelin tunes my husband had on the car CD player.

Gracie Gets Her Name

The GPS system is so heuristic that I was very quickly talking to it, and really liking it... well not it, her. It is a she. And so we had to name her. Backseat Betty didn't work at all, and was already taken by an obscure Miles Davis tune. It couldn't be Chekov, because it has neither a Russian accent nor a male voice, and was already taken by Gene Roddenberry. Finally we started to call it Grace -- and eventually Gracie -- because there but by the Grace... well you get it. Without her, we'd be lost.

Grace worked with only minor glitches for our whole vacation. And the glitches are minor. She sometimes got confused at turns and thought we'd passed our turn when we hadn't. And then it would take her a couple of seconds to figure out we were right where we were supposed to be.

Just like any new friend, Grace does have her idiosyncrasies. Most of them are related to the 10 or 15 seconds it takes her to re-orient herself when you go off course, or when she thinks you have. However, she's so helpful, that I didn't at all resent having to get used to her minor foibles. I mean compared with waiting for my husband to find the map (didn't I ask you to please keep it nearby); and open it (didn't I ask you to keep it open to a certain area); and find north (didn't I ask God to send me a husband who could read maps?), giving Grace 15 seconds to re-orient herself is a small concession. Relationships do require compromises, and I was glad to work with Grace and learn her strengths and weaknesses.

The strengths were being able to leave a party in the middle of the night, waking Grace up and picking from the "stored destinations" our hotel's address and being guided step by step to the garage entrance. The strengths were when we'd miss a turn or turned too early and Grace would say "please return to the highlighted route" twice, while we dealt with a quick jog at the next turn. But if we didn't return to the highlighted route, Grace would calmly say "recalculating route" and would save us from our own efforts at getting back on course.

Other things Grace did really well, which only the best human navigators have ever done for me, is that she constantly displays the miles remaining for the entire route, and the miles (or tenths of a mile) remaining on that particular road. She lets you know two miles and then half a mile before freeway exits, so you don't have sit in the right hand lane, wondering whether you have time to pass that truck before you have to exit. And she never gets frustrated or cranky.

Grace also has a limited yellow pages if you want to find "a" theater, rather than the theater at a particular address; she has a very good list of sightseeing destinations through out the United States; and she can direct you to an intersection, so you don't have to have exact addresses for her to do her thing.

Grace, You Is My GPS Now

By the second day of our trip, my husband and I were in love with Grace. I can live without Grace. I do enjoy trip planning, I do like my maps with my carefully thought out color-coding. But planning is a hobby I got into for a purpose. Without the purpose, it's not a hobby that has "legs" of it's own. Trip planning, for me, is a way to have the time, and freedom to do things I want to do. Grace eliminates some of that need. I still like to know what a vacation destination has to offer.

Gracie can be added to your car, even if you didn't rent it from Hertz. With a typical street price in the neighborhood of $1700, she's not cheap. But she is easy -- and can make traveling much more enjoyable.


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