GPS: The foundation of them all

2017-10-21 2 min read

    I spent a few hours driving today and couldn’t stop but think how different driving is now compared to the pre-GPS, pre-smartphone era. Before them I would be extremely wary of deviating from the preplanned path in any way. That meant avoiding all sorts of detours and prioritizing rest stops over exits. It also meant traveling with a road atlas and planning your exact route before setting off. And always questioning whether you missed a particular exit or turn and need to turn around.

    These days it’s much simpler - just get in the car, enter your destination, and go. You don’t need to plan having confidence that your phone will get you wherever you need to go. and And if you miss your turn you’ll get a new set of directions to get you back on track. This gives you the freedom to go out of your way to explore whatever looks interesting on the road or change your route to take care of some errands.

    These were just the superficial thoughts; what’s really interesting to think about is how much of the current world depends on GPS. Ridesharing companies wouldn’t exist without GPS. Sure we would have had a more intelligent dispatch system but GPS commoditized drivers since you didn’t need to have any street knowledge to drive. In fact, I’ve never taken an Uber or Lyft where the driver wasn’t using a GPS.

    Beyond ridesharing, delivery heavy companies would suffer. For the same reasons that GPS makes my life easier it makes life easier for delivery drivers everywhere. This leads to a lower delivery cost which increases total delivery volume - where it’s food delivery or anything purchased remotely.

    What’s remarkable is that GPS was developed by the US federal government - initially for military purposes but then expanded into civilian use. A private enterprise wouldn’t have done anything of this global scale and it highlights how positive of an impact a well intentioned government can have. This decision made more than 40 years ago is the foundation for a huge part of the modern world and one can only hope we see more of these foundational innovations.