Bring a Map: Phone-Based Nav Systems Like Apple Car Play & OnStar Stop Working In a Disaster

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As we all move towards reliance on our cell phones, we may want to remember how we got around before we had them.

In a natural disaster, like the one Texas, Louisiana, and Florida just saw due to Hurricane Harvey — and the one looming in the form of Hurricane Irma spooling up to smash the East Coast — one of the infrastructure pillars our modern information system rests upon can crumble: Mobile phones can stop working. Cellular phone infrastructure itself relies upon both electrical power and a backup system using generators. As the August 27th FCC map above shows, up to 94% of cell service was interrupted in the hardest hit areas and eight counties had at least a 20% service outage.

When the power goes out and the generators are under water, the cell towers stop doing their part. In other types of disasters, like the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the towers themselves and the switching centers for land lines can be damaged or destroyed. With our vehicle’s navigation system options relying more and more heavily on cell-phone service, a good old paper map in your trunk may still have value.

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General Motors’ OnStar navigation system relies on a cellular phone connection in your vehicle. The OnStar system uses a basic device with a powerful antenna to connect you and your vehicle to the information hub. Without a cell phone signal, that system will fail. GM isn’t alone. Every telematics system uses that same technology, whether the car is a Tesla or a Tundra. Unless your car has a cellular phone connection, you lose that service.

RELATED: Here Are the Navigation Options In Modern Vehicles

One of the most popular ways to navigate, and perhaps the most affordable navigation system overall, is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. We love this trend, since we don’t have to pay up for an in-dash system that will be obsolete in a few years and be costly to update.

However, when cell phone coverage ends, so too do the map updates and turn-by turn instructions. Traditional, embedded satellite navigation systems do offer the advantage of not requiring a cellular signal to operate.

Our image above shows what Android Auto’s Google Maps displays after one moves into an area without cell service.

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John Goreham

John Goreham