Compared to Google Maps, Apple Maps has been an underdog ever since it was introduced in 2012. That's because in its early years it was bad. There are plenty of stories of people getting very strange results when using Apple Maps, even in populated areas.
Over time, Apple has done a lot to improve Maps, so much so that I even prefer it most of the time. I find it especially good at public transit directions when I'm visiting large cities. That's not something I would have dared to say a few years ago.
There is, however, one particularly strange way that Apple Maps is still broken. To explain what I mean, it's helpful if I share an example.
Do you see those stop signs? They aren't actually stop signs. Well, they are stop signs, but they're for bike riders on the sidewalk, not vehicles on the road.
For context, here's what one of those stop signs looks like in real life.
Why does Apple Maps treat this as a traffic stop sign when giving directions? It seems confusing, at best, and potentially dangerous if you weren't familiar with the area. If you were driving around, following directions, and you see on the map that there's a stop sign, you're going to be looking for the stop sign, which means you're probably going to start slowing down. On a road where traffic is traveling 45 miles per hour, and everyone else knows there isn't a stop sign, that can be dangerous.
I've probably observed similar misplaced traffic indicators a half dozen or so times in various different locations. Not nearly enough to be considered a widespread problem, but if you're helping people navigate safely, the little things really do matter.
I asked Apple about this but didn't immediately receive a response.
Here's what's interesting to me, and it illustrates what I think is one of the most difficult challenges of technology. Even as computers get really smart, they are nowhere near the ability of human decision-making--especially when it comes to navigation.
For years, Apple licensed mapping data from third parties like TomTom. As Apple has improved maps, it has also moved most of its map technology in-house, at least in the U.S. As a result, it has been able to roll out its Look Around feature, which is similar to Google's Street View--the feature that lets you view and navigate through 360-degree imagery on a street-by-street level.
Apple's feature is only available in certain cities, but the same base map technology is used in its navigation features. That means that it's likely that, in some cases, it relies on imaging to determine where things like stoplights, yield signs, and stop signs are located. Except computers aren't as good at determining context.
When a computer sees a stop sign facing against the direction of traffic, it makes sense that it would assume it's for drivers. The computer isn't able to understand that sometimes it might have a different purpose.
A human driver wouldn't be confused. The stop signs in this case are smaller and positioned far enough from the road that even an unfamiliar driver wouldn't think that they should stop. Besides, humans are pretty good at using common sense to observe the conditions and recognize that they wouldn't need to stop. Computers aren't.
Look no further than the recent investigation into Tesla's autopilot, which has trouble with knowing what to do with parked cars along the side of the road. More than a dozen accidents involving a Tesla colliding with an emergency vehicle with flashing lights show that computers aren't very good at contextual decision making.
I will freely admit that this is a very nuanced area where Apple Maps is broken. And my point isn't that you shouldn't use it. I still use Apple Maps almost every day, it's the only reason I even know this problem exists.
I don't even mean for this article to be overly critical. I'm sure that building accurate maps and navigation is extraordinarily complicated. That, of course, is the point. As much as we'd like it to, technology doesn't solve every problem. Sometimes, in fact, it creates problems that even a brand new teenage driver would be able to avoid.
That matters because if you're building a product that is meant to help people get around, you're asking them to trust that you won't tell them to stop in the middle of a busy street where you might cause an accident. That's a pretty important thing to get right.