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Remoteness Disappears

The first to feel the effects are those whose work has traditionally brought them far from the eyes of supervisors. With GPS, that remoteness disappears. Says Richardson: “A direct effect of GPS monitoring is that you can identify any place where there might be slack in the system. If a shipper has a loading dock that backs up, he can divert trucks to another dock. What that means for the trucker is that a natural break in his work is being taken out. His control over the day is taken away, and there is an intensification of the work day as a result of the technology.”

Differences of opinion like these led to the 1997 strike at United Parcel Service. An early adopter of many information technologies, the company thought GPS would be an efficient way to keep track of its fleet from a central location. In 1996, UPS began equipping its trucks with GPS receivers that could be monitored from a central location. Employees thought poorly of the idea. The current contract between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters forbids GPS to be used continuously, or for evaluating employee performance.

“We weren’t at all opposed to the technology, as long as it helped our workers to do their jobs better,” says Paul Boldin, research director for the Teamsters. “GPS is useful as a way to optimize routes, but for that purpose it doesn’t need to be done continuously. Guys at UPS are working their butts off, running from stop to stop. They don’t need the additional hassle of being tracked. If the work is not getting done, it’s going to show up in late deliveries and poor customer feedback. GPS in that case is overkill.”

When we use the Internet these days we don’t think much about the technology’s origins as a defense communications network. GPS however is still, at its heart, an enabling technology for war. Though the system now in place represents the combined effort of public and private innovation, national security is its bedrock mission.

Still, encouraging changes are on the way. In 1996 President Clinton ordered the U.S. military to cease its policy of intentionally degrading civilian GPS signals by no later than 2006. The Pentagon will, however, retain its capacity to degrade the signal for purposes of national security in specific regions. During a future war in the Balkans, for instance, the U.S. military will be able to distort the location information just in that region, while leaving other parts of the world unaffected.

The consumer market will see other improvements as a new array of 24 satellites is deployed. The new models-scheduled for launch between 2003 and 2010-will transmit civilian location signals at not one frequency but two. This additional frequency will allow the GPS receiver to detect and then compensate for distortion of the GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere. (The military will continue to operate its own separate GPS frequency, to which civilian receivers will not have access.) Meanwhile, improvements in algorithms will eventually allow GPS to be used even in urban canyons and dense foliage, areas where it’s currently weak. Startup companies such as SnapTrack in San Jose, Calif., are already marketing their GPS devices specifically for use in city centers.

Even with such gains, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that GPS will become a ubiquitous utility. Evidence to date suggests that phenomenally accurate location data are of interest mainly to specialized niche markets. Enthusiasts like Charlie Trimble argue that the falling price of the hardware will lead to a new era of location-awareness, with GPS receivers embedded in scores of everyday objects much the way clocks are now. But is this information valuable? Is it useful to the average consumer? Those are the kinds of questions that will determine the future of GPS, a system that has been “on the horizon” for a long time now and doesn’t yet have a clear route home.

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