Navigation nightmare on a desert road

Times Staff Writer

Interstate 15 was a parking lot on Aug. 14, as Marty Callner was trying to drive back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where he had taken his daughter for a show on the Strip.

Callner decided to tap into the navigation system of his Mercedes-Benz SL500R, a $100,000 car equipped with all the available luxuries to keep him comfortable and advanced equipment meant to keep him safe.

But what happened that day still reverberates with the Hollywood producer of concerts by the Rolling Stones and Madonna, among others.


The car’s navigation system advised Callner that he could use a detour to Baker, going through the back roads of the Mojave Desert. He had used the nav system’s detour feature in the past without a problem.

Callner said the Mercedes navigation system provided a circuitous route, first back-tracking north on I-15 and then swinging far south. He ended up on a remote dirt road, as a thunderstorm lighted up the sky and rain pounded the desert. As he later learned, flash flood warnings had been posted for the desert in one of the biggest electrical storms of the season.

The computer-generated woman’s voice coming out of the instrument panel kept commanding Callner to “continue to follow the road,” though he had his qualms when he had to start dodging large rocks as the road surface deteriorated.

A few miles from the pavement’s end, Callner heard a loud pop: blow out.

What happened to Callner might be an extreme example of a navigational nightmare, but the events that day provide a good lesson in the shortcomings and limitations of computerized navigation systems that are appearing not only on high-end luxury cars but on lower priced models as well.

In lengthy correspondence between Callner’s attorney, S. Jerome Mandel, and Mercedes-Benz, the auto maker denies that its navigation system had malfunctioned in the desert. A spokeswoman added that the route was “traversable and a common detour.”

Callner is not suing Mercedes, but had written to the company about the problems and what he regarded as improper comments made by staff at the telephone assistance center, an emergency roadside service for Mercedes owners. The company’s letter indicates it was able to confirm that Callner was indeed stranded and had sought assistance.

Mercedes-Benz’s written reply to Callner amounts to a blunt disclosure of the limitations of such navigation systems.

“We must remind you (and your client),” Mercedes wrote to Mandel, “that a GPS system is not meant to replace regular maps, or driver judgment, but is simply an enhancement to travel available to vehicle operators, which they may elect to use or not. A driver uses a navigation system at his or her own discretion.”

So, don’t throw away those paper maps stuffed in the glove box just yet and forget the idea that computerized navigation systems are going to provide a reliable solution to the inability of many people to read and understand maps.

Navigational challenges are growing worse for motorists as cities get bigger and highway systems more complex. A General Motors study about 10 years ago found that 20% of motorists at any given moment were either lost or on a less than optimal route.

Such a finding may be hard to believe when it comes to getting around your own neighborhood, but tell somebody they have to find an unfamiliar street 50 miles away in Southern California and all bets are off. Driver’s education classes should teach map reading, but most do not.

Just about every auto manufacturer has issued technical service bulletins on glitches, defects and a variety of other limitations in their nav systems, according to a review of bulletins compiled by the automobile repair information publisher Alldata Inc.

Mercedes has issued four service bulletins for the SL500R, though none of them played a role in Callner’s mishap. They involve glitches in software or data bases, locking out the user or not displaying a route on the instrument panel screen. Another bulletin warns that the system’s software problems may provide “navigation parallel to the actual route.”

And then Mercedes warns that during “worldwide crisis situations” the system may provide erroneous navigation advice. You’ll have to contact Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to learn more about that tricky issue.

These problems are not unique. BMW, for example, issued a warning for its 2003 745i that the navigation computer “is inoperative at high ambient temperatures.” That’s not a problem in Duluth, Minn., but a big issue in Phoenix. The bulletin advises BMW dealers to fix it “on a customer complaint basis only.” The fix involves nine pages of detailed steps to change out parts.

Earlier this year, GM issued a bulletin that advised mechanics that the navigation system on its Escalade and other models “may exhibit a condition in which the vehicle reports an inaccurate location.” It was another case of the software blues.

If you have a Porsche Cayenne, you might find the start screen on the navigation seems stuck. The problem of “booting up” the control modules for the system “is caused by a fault in the software.”

The problems Callner experienced in the desert were compounded, he said, by the refusal of the Mercedes-Benz phone center to send immediate help. According to Mandel’s letter, an agent at Mercedes tele-aid center told Callner after they were stranded for a few hours that nobody was on the way. When Callner asked why, the agent reportedly said, “Because, sir, nobody wants to die out there with you tonight.”

“My daughter’s eyes got as big as silver dollars,” Callner recalled.

Mercedes officials denied in a reply letter that any such statement was made and that a review of the incident showed all the proper procedures were followed. A corporate spokeswoman said this week that she was not familiar with the matter, but would look into it.

Callner was assisted by a tow truck operator seven hours later, and he acknowledges now that he should have used his own judgment to ignore the advice given by his navigation system.

“I just don’t want anybody else to be stuck in that situation,” Callner said. “It was pretty frightening.”

Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at ralph.vatabedian@