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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 1
As part of our ongoing obsession with rethinking cities, we’re bringing you a six-week bonus series on the future of mobility. It will direct itself into your inbox on Mondays, while the regular edition will arrive on Wednesday as usual. Welcome to Week 2!
How do we get there? It’s a question that we used to only be able answer with printed maps or guided signs. But those days are long gone—now our phones or car systems can answer it with the touch of a button, and get us there more quickly to boot. GPS, or Global Positioning System, is simple in concept, but extensive in the technology and mechanics needed to allow drivers to avoid a traffic-causing accident five miles up ahead.
A space-age defense secret turned consumer appliance, GPS continues to shape how we get around. But as the system becomes more accurate, it might actually be making our navigation less efficient.
You’ve reached your destination.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 2
30: Operational satellites currently in the GPS constellation
6: Equally-spaced orbital planes that the GPS satellites are arranged into, with each plane containing four slots for a satellite to occupy
20,200 km (12,550 miles): Altitude at which the satellites circle the Earth twice a day
95%: Amount of time 24 of the operational satellites need to be available
$3,000: Price of Magellan’s NAV 1000 in 1989
1 billion: GPS receivers around the globe in 2010
4 billion: Humans using GPS technology in 2019
30 cm (11.8 in): Location accuracy of L5 frequency band for GPS receivers in 2018
120,000: Cars rerouted per hour during evening congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area
90%: Share of American smartphone owners who get their driving directions from the device some of the time, as of 2015
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 3
Apps are able to pinpoint locations thanks to dozens of satellites in outer space. On a basic level, GPS works because satellites emit radio waves that devices pick up, and the change in radio wave frequency allows the devices to calculate distance. Continued development of satellite and rocket technology has improved accuracy down to mere inches.
The US has so far launched 75 GPS satellites into space, building a GPS constellation system of 24 continuously operational satellites. It has gone through two generations of satellites and is now working towards making the GPS III system fully operational, which would involve signals eight times more powerful than GPS II and improved jamming resistance.
The US’s was the only GPS satellite system fully operational for almost two decades, until Russia’s GLONASS system was completed in 2011. But Russia isn’t as much a competitor in space advancement and satellite launches as it was 60 years ago. China has been touting its speedy GPS satellite development, which only began in the 1990s. Its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System became globally operational in 2018, and it completed its BDS-3 system earlier this year. While the US is ahead of the other frontrunners, it still has several satellites to launch as part of the GPS III system—the fourth one was recently delayed. Meanwhile, China is proving itself to be a viable competitor in the near future.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 4
“At the end of the day, with all this technology, global positioning, it’s still up to human judgment. A map is still subject to human interpretation.”
—Former Mapbox vice president and Asia/Pacific director Andy Lee in an interview for The Atlantic
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 6
1940s: The LORAN and the Decca Navigator radio navigation systems—on which GPS is partly based—are created and used by airplane pilots and ship captains during WWII.
1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik I into orbit, beginning the space race and the development of satellite technology.
1963: The Aerospace Corporation creates a study that lays the foundation for the GPS system, determining the location coordinates by measuring the transmission times of satellite signals to receivers in vehicles.
1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is shot down by the USSR for straying into prohibited airspace, prompting the US to make GPS available to civilians to improve navigation and air traffic safety.
1989: Magellan introduces the first hand-held GPS device, the NAV 1000.
1993: The GPS constellation system, composed of 24 satellites, becomes fully operational.
1999: Cell phone manufacturer Benefon creates the first commercial GPS phone.
2001: TomTom and Garmin in-car navigation GPS products, much smaller than earlier Magellan models, come on the market.
2004: Qualcomm tests live-assisted GPS on cell phones.
2005: The first dedicated civilian GPS channel is established with the launch of Block IIR satellites. Also, Google Maps launches.
2009: A Tel Aviv startup launches Waze to shave minutes off commutes by avoiding traffic jams. In 2019 the app had 130 million monthly active users.
2013: TomTom, Waze, and Google begin to offer real-time GPS rerouting suggestions for drivers.
2023: The year the GPS III satellite constellation system should be fully operational.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 7
Between Google Maps, Waze, Apple Maps, and MapQuest, there are ample options for navigation apps, and they all compete against each other to find the fastest route. The next generation of GPS III satellites is expected to increase location and navigation accuracy by a factor of three; these apps will likely try to use them to optimize people’s commutes by predicting traffic before it even happens.
But the predictive navigation of the future might slow down traffic and cause more accidents. The apps will be more likely to direct a driver off a congested highway and onto residential roads that can be narrow, winding, and have blind spots that are difficult to maneuver when driving on them for the first time, ultimately creating more buildup. And with all these navigation apps vying for the same users, they’re all creating single “user-optimized” driving options that have been proven to worsen overall delay of commutes.
Users are pushing back. Some have retaliated by recording fake accidents on local roads to dissuade the apps from suggesting the route. Cities like Stockholm and Singapore are putting tolls on roads that offer less optimal travel times during peak commute hours. But to make a long term change to improve commutes for all, app companies will have to share fragmented user data with public works organizations so that they can improve infrastructure to accommodate more than just car commutes.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 9
GPS satellites have atomic clocks that can determine time in 100 billionths of a second and are used to synchronize time in a cell phone network.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 10
Sometimes it’s like the GPS voice is intentionally trying to irritate you. And sometimes it’s intentionally trying to delight you.
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Quartz Obsession — GPS — Card 12
Let’s be honest. The internet isn’t quite the singular, cohesive version that early enthusiasts might have hoped for, and it’s splintering faster and faster. Take China’s increasingly influential philosophy of cyber-sovereignty, and US president Donald Trump’s efforts to broker a sale of TikTok.
Quartz asked executives, researchers, and policy advisers to help us imagine the experiences of internet users across the world five years from now, based on the present-day battles between tech giants, politicians, and internet freedom fighters that are directly shaping our online future.
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