My Olde English GPS Adventure

Don’t look in the trunk, it’s imperial in there

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog “Moon Landing” Edition

When I finally purchased a GPS for my automobile, the impact it had on how I drove around my city was enormous. I also immediately set it for kilometers instead of miles. Within a few weeks I had a good idea how far 100, 200 and 500 meters is and about how far I could see was often about a kilometer. For the next few years I merrily drove multi-state road trips and local ones with the GPS piloting my excursions.

My father did not own a GPS at the time I purchased mine and was curious. At his request I brought it with us on an errand and we set it to find the address where an old family friend had lived at a nearby lake. It immediately told us to proceed 200 meters to a nearby stoplight. My father’s face contorted, and some very disapproving prose was uttered. I don’t recall what he said, but I do recall laughing out loud. Despite my father being “metrically challenged” the test trip went smoothly and we arrived at our destination.

Because I had not estimated drive times in metric before, I had to adapt. A useful benchmark in Ye Olde English is 60 miles per hour or a mile per minute. 40 miles is about 40 minutes. If I saw a road sign which stated it was 270 miles to a destination, I would have to multiply out integer values of 60 and figure the remainder. “Let’s see 240 miles is four hours and 30 left over is 30 more minutes. so four and one half hours.” I immediately realized I had lost the mile per minute guesstimate in metric, but hours were instantaneous to determine. A good guesstimate of an average speed is 100 Km/h Kph . So let’s suppose a kilometer marker states it’s 450 Km* to a destination, immediately we know it’s 4.5 hours. For short trips I know that 0.1 hour is six minutes. If it’s 10 Km to a destination it’s about six minutes, 25 Km is 15 minutes, 50 is 30 minutes and 75 is 45 minutes.

I happily continued my GPS guided metric motoring over the last few years without incident. Then, this last winter I had a disruption. It had been hovering about zero degrees Fahrenheit or about -18 Celsius outside. I went to my car and drove to a battery store on a side of town with which I’m unfamiliar but was straightforward to find. I needed to go to a market next, and wanted to take the most direct route. I fired up my GPS. There was just one problem, it had been so cold the battery went dead and reset the unit. I had to tell the unit I was in the US and other information. I could not find my stored addresses. I tried cycling the power. All my saved addresses re-appeared!  Great! I selected the market and began driving. The GPS display indicated I needed to drive 7 Km and make a right turn onto an interstate highway. I thought to myself “that’s not too far.” It seemed like it took quite a while to cover the 7 Km, but I took no real notice. When the turnoff onto an interstate highway arrived, the voice instructed me to “turn right in 0.4 miles.” Suddenly I had no idea how far that was. Even though I could see the turnoff, it bothered me I had no correlation with distance. As I entered the highway I was told to drive 7 miles. When I approached the off ramp to the secondary street leading to the market it again gave the distance in tenths of miles. They had no meaning for me.

I was completely familiar with this road and the turnoffs in metric, but the correlation with the Olde English distances on my GPS were giving me a sort of unexpected vertigo. As I approached the market I looked up at the distance display and all I could read was 600. I was so used to seeing meters there that my mind rejected what it was seeing. I thought it can’t be yards, they’re like meters, it must be feet. When I pulled into the parking lot I could barely read a tiny ft stacked up on the GPS units after the number. But it had been tenths of miles previously when I was turning. When did the units switch?

Driving with my GPS set to kilometers caused me to pay little attention to the distances on signs. Without metric for a touchstone, the craziness of US road signs became stark. I noticed this sign which indicates the left lane will end in 1/2 mile. You will note there is a second follow-up warning sign, which can be seen along with the first but not read:

This Lane Ends 1/2 Mile (note second warning sign in the distance)

Here is the second warning sign in the distance:

This Lane Ends in 1000 feet

The first sign tells me that the left lane ends in 1/2 mile or 5280 feet/2 which is 2640 feet. The second sign, whose presence is clearly seen from the first, next tells us the left lane ends in 1000 feet, which is of course 1000 ft/5280 ft/mile or 0.19 miles approximately.  Wow! How had I not noticed this crazy set of signs before?—oh—I was using metric with my GPS and ignoring them. If they had been in metric the first sign might have said:  This Lane Ends in 800 meters, the second sign could then say This Lane Ends In  300 meters. This is much easier to read than 0.8 Km and 0.3 Km. Nice Naughtin friendly integers, and the same units for both signs.

One never hears cries of the “implied precision fallacy” when feet are used in a context like this. In this case the first sign is in miles, the second is in feet. This is a ratio of 1:5280. Where are the cries that feet are too small of a unit?—they imply too much precision for this usage—or that miles are too large?  In the case of kilometers and meters, the ratio is only 1:1000.

When I returned from shopping, I set my GPS unit back to kilometers. As soon as I heard proceed 500 meters and take a left, I was calm again. As I drove home I noticed something else. I had not been  looking at the distances on the road signs as my GPS provided distances to exits in metric. Apparently, when I was looking at the signs, I had been just noticing the road name and the exit numbers. With the interruption of my GPS unit still firmly in my mind, I realized that the road signs all had fractional distances. Harlan street 3/4 mile, or Jessman Drive 1/2 mile, yet the GPS would output decimal miles—-0.75 miles or 0.5 miles—-it did not match the fractional expression on the signs. This was but one more reminder that we have not even fully embraced decimals in this country, let alone the metric system. No wonder it seemed so odd.

Once I used a GPS with metric measurement, I embraced a system which has a dimensional continuum. I understood meters, and if I was told it was 1000 meters to a destination (which it has) or  alternatively 1 kilometer, this created no distance discontinuity in my mind. They both cognitively registered as the same distance without distraction. Metric forms a continuous expression of sizes. When using Ye Olde English/USC/ACSOWM one may choose whatever unit you feel like, in fact we are encouraged to do this by our grade school pedants, but this farrago of units creates discontinuities in cognitive quantity comprehension. The sudden change from tenths of miles to hundreds of feet was a jolt. I was so happy I had my meters back.  Olde English has hundreds of units from which one can choose. A false maxim of The Ye Olde English Arbitrary Grouping of Weights and Measures, is to choose a unit that fits the closest to what you’re measuring. This multi-card measurement monte encouraged massive unit proliferation, which in turn allows massive opportunities for fraud and confusion.

The metric system has but one base unit for length, the meter. The prefixes describe units which are multiplied or divided by 1000. The length of an object falls on the metric measurement continuum. If its length is near a prefix boundary, Naughtin’s Laws help to keep one’s intuition of magnitude continuous by smoothing out discontinuities. (This is also a reason I’m against the use of centimeters, and believe they should be discontinued for actual computation)

I had an unexpected realization from my GPS reset. Suppose you were from another country—ok any other country sans Liberia and Myanmar, and visited the US. You have been brought up on the metric system, and suddenly you are confronted with US roadsigns. You first must contend with miles, and signs with fractions of miles, not decimals. Then  you suddenly encounter a sign that says: Right lane ends 500 feet. We switched units on you from miles to feet, and possibly even yards. You have no idea if that is near or far as the base unit of length has been changed–radically. One can see how this switching of units could cause panic, measurement vertigo, and uncertainty for a visiting driver. I had somewhat experienced their possible confusion when my GPS reset itself to Ye Olde English—and I grew up in this country.

Unfortunately our provincial culture does not seem to allow us to understand the potential confusion our jumble of units could cause a visitor from another country. The few who do try to accommodate visitors find it tough going. In 1982 the state of Florida decided to add metric units to its highway signs. The rationale behind this change was that over five million tourists visited Florida and many of them were unfamiliar with Olde English units. They also believed it would encourage Americans to become more familiar with metric units. Florida was going to use its own funds to implement this change. There was only one thing they needed, the approval of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

It came as a surprise, when, despite the 1866 federal law which does not allow the prohibition of metric units in the US, the FHWA refused to allow the signs. They argued that Congress had passed a law which prohibited the installation of solely metric highway signs using Federal funds, unless Congress approved. The installation of these signs would violate neither of those conditions. The FHWA would later reverse itself without providing rational reasons for the attempted ban, or why it changed its stand. Like most tales of metric in the US, a later Florida Governor would refuse to allow the signs to be installed.

After my experience losing metric in my GPS, I can truly say to visitors to this country who must drive our roads, I feel your pain.

* Yes I’m using capital K deliberately.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

11 thoughts on “My Olde English GPS Adventure

  1. All proponents of the metric system should endeavor to use it correctly as an example to those they are trying to persuade. To do otherwise confuses and mis-directs the very people we are trying to win over. We can all miss a typo, but doing so deliberately seems counterproductive.

    The proper symbol for kilo- is “k” so I can’t imagine why you would purposefully use “K” but obviously I consider it a bad choice. And kph (or Kph) is just a blatant appeal for AP press credentials. The proper symbol is km/h. (Did I ever mention I am EXTREMELY critical of AP for its metric mis-usage?)

    Finally, consumer electronics like the GPS are generally designed for 0 – 50 °C, not the automotive temperature range of -40 °C to +85 °C. I recommend bringing your unit indoors when extremely hot or cold. Also theft is a big problem around here; never leave it visible in the car except in a locked garage.

  2. What is Kph? It looks to me like kelvin picohours! I never heard of such a unit, what does it measure/

  3. “This Lane Ends in 800 meters, the second sign could then say This Lane Ends In 300 meters. This is much easier to read than 0.8 Km and 0.3 Km. Nice Naughtin friendly integers, and the same units for both signs.”

    I would hope the sign would read as 800 m and then 400 m (not 300 m), and the symbol “m” is used and not the word spelled out.

    Also I would prefer to see a pictorial (preferably Vienna Convention) sign with a symbol for lane ends or merge with the distance under it. No words needed. Works in all languages.

    As for Florida and its road signs for tourists, the situation is solved when foreign visitors bring or when renting a car use the rental agencies GPS and set it to metric and ignore the road signs as you have done. GPS is a necessity for tourists as it keeps them away from wrong neighbourhoods and the chance of them being murdered as has happened many times in the past.

    • Actually, 1000 feet is exactly 304.8 meters, so “300 m” would be a lot more accurate than “400 m”.

  4. I visited the US and rented a car with GPS once. The damn thing reset itself to miles and feet every time I started the car. It was so annoying. There seemed to be no setting that would make it stick to km.

    > Yes I’m using capital K deliberately.

    That still bugs me every time I read your posts. I think it’s more important for you to use and advocate correct use of SI units and prefixes, and not stubbonly stick to your own ideas about what you think the prefix should have been.

  5. I wish I had a car that I could switch the speedo/odometer to metric. Even nicer to switch the signs on the roads. (Freedom of measurement like the NIST says we have in this country)

    My GPS has never left the metric settings. Luckily, the temps here never get down to -18º C here. We might get down to -3º C sometimes. Tomorrow it supposed to get up to 40º C. Pool time!!!

    I totally agree on how totally stupid our measures on the signage of this countries roadways are. And the typical U.S. citizen thinks they’re the best in the world.

    I would like to take a trip down I-19 in Arizona. (sigh) See the link below. If the link doesn’t work, google “Interstate 19” and look at images. Enjoy.

    Again, good luck with your war on the centimeter, it is more popular world wide than the USC inch.

  6. Openly metric, I believe that the odometer and a few other measurements, such as distance to empty, can be set to metric on U.S. cars. We have two Fords, an ’04 and ’06 and their instruments can be set to metric. Unfortunately, the speedometer has metric units in the inner circle and in smaller dimensions and cannot be set for metric only. I also found a tire pressure gauge, manufactured by Milton, with the outer ring in metric. The outdated units were smaller and on the inside ring. I think that is some progress

    We are going to Quebec, Canada in a couple of weeks and my wife got some road maps from AAA. I have looked them over and have found only metric units used!!! Now if I could only read and speak French.

    • Enjoy your trip, Woodie. I hope your travels are fun and safe. I’ve been to several countries, mainly in asia/pacific but never Canada. Even though I lived in Montana for 6 years.

      My ’99 Dodge Stratus doesn’t offer the option to change anything. The only metric is on the radio dial. I will look for a car with a the option to change units when its time for another car. I know my mom had a mid ’80s LeBaron that had a digital dash and a one button toggle for units. I’ve entertained the idea of calibrating my ’78 power wagon to km and km/h but the speedo only goes to 100, so it would make freeway driving a bit of a guessing game.

  7. Perhaps some of us are a little hard on The Maven for advocating K instead of k. After all, his rationale is on-target: Since he doesn’t believe deca- and hecto- should be used at all, then all larger prefixes should be uppercased, which would parallel all submultiples being lowercased, since The Maven doesn’t care for deci- and centi- either. (I still think centi- is quite useful, and so believe he should at least give it sort of an “informal” status.)

    The problem I have with K is it has become a non-prefix in the news. For example, a “10K race” has come to mean 10 000 meters or 10 kilometers, and so is not really a prefix meaning 1000, which k is.

    As such, formally, km means 1000 meters or 1 kilometer, and less formally, something like $7.5k means $7500, which has a long usage history in this country. (I’ve always liked this informal usage; for example, when another forum I’m a big contributor to recently passed 5000 members, I noted it by writing something like “it’s good to see we recently reached 5k members”.)

  8. Hello, nice blog you have. I was wondering what GPS you use and if the voice on it pronounces kilometer properly. Literally every GPS I have used (including smartphone apps) have said it the incorrect kuh-law-meter instead of kill-o-meter. I even tried changing it over to the British and Australian voice and it did not change.

    About the sign change, I still wonder how the clustered services sign at the exits will be handled; the sign that has all the logos, direction and distance of each after you exit. Will they put the unit (km) next to every entry or just have a plaque below it stating “distances in km.” Of course, that would just be temporary until all signs are changed.

    • All metric message signs were removed from the 2009 edition of MUTCD, so there is no longer guidance for metric signage.

      Assuming they brought it back and used things similar to the 2003 edition, I think the numbers would be changed to kilometers, and the yellow “METRIC” placard placed underneath the sign.

Comments are closed.