There's a wacky story a week, it seems, about some unfortunate soul driving down a railway track, across a muddy field or into a lake thanks to errant GPS instructions. Each time, the journalist pokes fun at the technology as well as the poor fools who relied on it just a little too much. Can't they read maps, they snipe? Don't they know that sat-navs are notoriously unreliable? We all have a laugh.
It just goes to show that you can't rely on technology all of the time and that you'll always need to keep your wits, and paper map, on hand to find the way. The electronic navigation revolution hasn't consigned the trusty printed map to the bin just yet.
But what does the future hold for products such as the venerable Microsoft AutoRoute? This is a product that has been around in one form or another for well over 10 years now – certainly for as long as I've been writing about technology – and was once the king of affordable digital mapping.
Now, however, it looks as though it's headed for the scrap heap. It does route-finding, but of course you can do that for free on any number of websites these days. Google Maps has a driving instructions facility, as does the RAC website, ViaMichelin and any number of others.
This version comes with a USB GPS receiver in the box and with it you can turn your laptop into complete sat-nav system. But let's face it, it isn't exactly practical when compared to today's pocket-sized touch-screen systems.
For starters there's no way in the world you're going to get that hulking great laptop to sit anywhere other than the passenger seat, or on your passenger's lap. This means it won’t be in your line of sight, and turning to consult it could be more dangerous than using a standard, windscreen-mounted sat-nav system.
Even if you did consider this a realistic thing to do, the USB cable supplied for connecting the GPS receiver isn't long enough, at 143cm, to make it very flexible. It doesn't have a 3D driving mode either, though Microsoft has clearly attempted to emulate the 'proper' sat-nav market by including a night view to minimise any distraction while driving in the dark. And, unforgivably, it also doesn't recalculate your route automatically if you take a wrong turn – you have to reach over and punch F3 to do that. Needless to say, it doesn't feature support for any traffic avoidance and doesn't have a 'bypass this section of the route' tool either, for when you get stuck in traffic.
And all this is before I even get to the accuracy of the driving instructions themselves, which leave a lot to be desired. In one trip across central London AutoRoute 2007 asked me to perform illegal or impossible manoeuvres three times in the space of less than a mile. And the road layout where these anomalies occurred wasn't new either.