Completely routed: When GPS goes wrong

Satnav guides family's rental car to a staircase in Bari.
Satnav guides family's rental car to a staircase in Bari. Photo: Twitter

I felt pity for the poor Australian family who, when driving a rental car in Puglia, Italy, and guided by their car's GPS system, ended up perilously perched on top of a flight of stairs in a village when the street they were travelling on abruptly ended.

The sat-nav had sent them on the most direct route through the town, regardless of whether this route was actually suitable for cars. We had a similar experience a few weeks ago in Tuscany.

We hadn't driven in Italy before and I was somewhat nervous about picking up a car in Rome and driving through that city, having seen too many movies like The Italian Job.

Another GPS fail. In 2012, Three Japanese tourists were fooled by a low tide and their GPS into believing they could drive to nearby North Stradbroke Island across about 15 km of mud and water. The trio became stuck and had to abandon the vehicle.
Another GPS fail. In 2012, Three Japanese tourists were fooled by a low tide and their GPS into believing they could drive to nearby North Stradbroke Island across about 15 km of mud and water. The trio became stuck and had to abandon the vehicle. Photo: Reuters

My husband, Mr Amos, was the designated driver. We'd done all the right things, organising a car through DriveAway Holidays here in Australia, and paying ahead a reasonable daily surcharge ($8.50) on the potentially expensive excess damages for a European car if we were in an accident (our travel insurance being inadequate.) Although Mr Amos is an excellent driver, I was convinced some manic Italian in a Bambino would crash straight into us at the first intersection or we'd end up head-on the wrong way in a one-way street.

The Avis depot was a few minutes taxi ride from our central Rome hotel. The man at the desk was exceptionally friendly, although we had to firmly resist a few more insurance options. We're not regular car hirers, so we hadn't thought to bring our own GPS and had to accept paying the €12 a day for the hire of a basic GPS system. As it turned out, Avis had reserved the wrong kind of car for us, so he volunteered an upgrade to a sporty Mercedes and waived the GPS fee.

The drive out of Rome was easy (it was a Sunday). Italian drivers seemed sane. The freeway to Tuscany wasn't especially busy. I'd been navigating with an old-fashioned road map (and an app on my iPad) as the GPS wasn't making too much sense. When we turned off the freeway, we needed "her" help. That's when it got interesting.

I'd chosen a "UK" as opposed to "US" guide, thinking, as this was Europe, she'd be easier to understand. But she spoke in a hybrid accent that was a bit mid-Atlantic, hedging her bets. (Mr Amos swore she was the same "person" who guided us in a borrowed Bentley in New York the year before.) Her pronunciation of Italian roads and villages bore little resemblance to the written names, being spoken in a robotic string of digital vowels and consonants.

As most of the streets had names like Strada delle Cavine e Valli, it was frustrating waiting for her to stutter it all out. It was funny at first, but ultimately irritating, as we'd often miss the turns trying to match her pronunciation to the road signs. As we kept making detours she didn't like, she became more and more demented, like a mechanical doll with a loose wire. Eventually, we turned her off and just followed the signs.

We were heading for a village called Castiglioncello del Trinoro, high on a hill overlooking the Val D'Orcia. I'd been there before, reaching it from the town of Sarteano below. I didn't recognise the bitumen road we were on, although I could see the village on top of a mountain to the left.

We switched the sat-nav back on and she swung into action. We were to turn left onto a "white" (unmade) road. There are many of these heritage roads in Tuscany, so at first it wasn't too alarming.

We were driving through farms, and then through wheat fields and then on to rutted paths through those fields. I could see Castiglioncello far in the distance and we were heading straight towards it. On a goat path.

Sensibly, Mr Amos stopped, and luckily he did, because around a corner was a ditch that we would have been stuck in without four-wheel drive. I was convinced our GPS, insulted by being turned off, did this to punish us.

We turned back, found Castiglioncello via the main road (less than one kilometre away if we'd kept going.) When we reached our hotel, the manager said, "Oh, yes, we often have to rescue guests stuck in that field".

GPS is an acronym for Getting Progressively Sadistic.

The writer's hire car was provided by DriveAway Holidays.

Have you ever had a GPS give you a bum steer? Share your stories below.

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