My family and I are spending my kids’ Spring Break vacationing in the mountains of Western North Carolina. If you have ever visited the Blue Ridge Mountains, then you already know how beautiful this area is. If not and you enjoy getting out into nature, then I highly recommend a visit.
A couple of downsides of all this rugged and rustic beauty, however, are some very ragged roads and poor cell signal.
After visiting some overlooks near Grandfather Mountain yesterday, we made are way over to the small, scenic mountain town of Blowing Rock, NC. We had been going up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Grandfather, but Apple Maps gave us a secondary route taking Hwy 221, which was a little bit shorter distance.
Unfortunately, what Apple Maps didn’t tell us was that this highway (which I have traveled flatter sections of further away in the past) is a twisting and turning, barely two lane mountain pass full of switchbacks and steep drops with few shoulders and even fewer guardrails. All this at over 4,000 feet. Bear in mind that my family and I reside around 3,600 feet lower than this in a place where we don’t have anything beyond gently rolling hills.
I guess I can’t fault Apple too much on this, because I doubt Google Maps would have given such a warning, either. However, a fun time taking the literal road less traveled isn’t why I’m writing this article. On the way back to our resort from Blowing Rock, we figured we would take the Blue Ridge Parkway. While it certainly has its ups and downs and is a bit longer drive distance-wise, it is a much easier road to travel than 221 was. I set up Apple Maps for my wife on the way out of town so she would have it to guide her via CarPlay and away we went.
Apple Maps had us get on the Parkway, as expected. However, soon after it told us get off a few miles further down on Holloway Mountain Road. We were a little nervous, but went ahead and decided to check out what this road looked like. It turned out to not only be an incredibly narrow mountain road that would be a stretch to fit two cars on, but completely unpaved. No thanks, Apple. Not in a damn minivan in the middle of nowhere.
Thankfully, the people behind us at the exit went the other way, so my wife was able to turn around in the middle of the road. Barely. There was nothing on this road as far as we could see and nowhere to pull off and turn, and we weren’t going to chance it. We then headed back to the Parkway, ignoring Siri’s protests to the contrary.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have any cell signal in this area, so there was no way for Apple Maps to reconfigure our route via the Internet and evidently it isn’t able to on-device. I know because I tried. No dice. However, Google Maps, which I had used to look up some stores in Blowing Rock, had downloaded at least part of the area for offline use (I received a notification that it had completed this earlier). I was able to re-route going the way we wanted to with it to get back to the resort.
Normally I don’t have any issues with Apple Maps back home, with much better cell signal and roads that are far easier to navigate. I have had very good success with it over the last couple of years and I actually prefer Apple’s app UI over Google’s. I also think they have done a very good job adding needed details in their recent big update over the last year. I’ve been using it more and more, especially with CarPlay.
However, all of that said, Apple still has plenty of improving to do here. There is no reason on God’s Green Earth that a reasonable mapping AI should have sent us down a gravel road in that location without it being absolutely necessary. Unless you specifically type in an address on or directly off of that road, that should never happen. An unpaved mountain pass is absolutely not OK to use as a reduced mileage option to get from Point A to Point B. Ever. End of story.
Apple also needs to get a lot better at handling areas with reduced cell service. As good as coverage is in most places and for all off the talk about the wonders of 5G, if you want to get away from it all, you will likely leave your mobile Internet connection behind. There just isn’t enough financial return in it for cell providers to build out coverage beyond cities and towns in rugged areas like this. The rollout of 5G isn’t going to change that, either.
The fact is, even though Apple Maps is baked into CarPlay and sitting on the font page, it really wasn’t up to the challenge yesterday. Once we lost signal, it was basically useless. For all of Apple’s work and improvement, these issues we encountered were pretty basic in the world of mapping. Apple has got to have smarter mapping AI that knows better than to send drivers down difficult to navigate mountain passes, especially near dusk in poor cell service conditions. They also have to get much better at caching areas where cell service is poor whenever a connection is available so that routes can be re-calculated when service is lost again. We know how powerful the A-Series processors are because Apple loves to tell us all about them. It’s time to put that to use to make using Maps on-device possible in remote areas.
The fact is, Apple Maps is going to be good enough for most people, most of the time as it stands today. But it really wasn’t up to the task for me and my family on this particular excursion, and that’s enough to make a person think about what they use day-to-day. It could have put us in a tough spot if we had continued to blindly follow it up that mountain pass. I’m not saying that I am going to stop using Apple Maps, but I will definitely be keeping Google Maps at the ready when driving in unfamiliar areas, especially ones with hazardous roads, like where we were yesterday.
[Note: I wrote most of this post up yesterday. Before we could get back to the resort so I could finish editing it today, Google Maps also failed to deliver a route based on a downloaded area of the map. Thankfully, the terrain wasn’t nearly as rugged in this area and we could still see the map. I was able to see the roads around me and my position and handle the navigation myself (just like the good old days). However, I felt like I had to mention this to maintain some level of impartiality.
At the end of the day. Google Maps isn’t perfect, either. If you want 100% reliability in the mountains or other remote areas, a stand-alone GPS unit or an iOS navigation app that can download entire maps ahead of a trip are the only options.]