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Windshield navigation device showing road ahead when car is at a dead end What To Do About Address, Route, and Map Problems on GPS Devices

Are you frustrated with the directions provided by GPS devices, such as wrong/missing addresses or improper routes? The problem is incorrect map data inside the devices. That data is provided by commercial companies, not by the government's GPS satellites.

GPS Helps You Get Your Coordinates

Early GPS device with black and white screen Early GPS devices only gave coordinates.

GPS satellites are much simpler than most people think. They cannot track you. They don't have comprehensive map databases like Google Earth. In fact, they have no knowledge of anything on the ground.

GPS satellites are just beacons, like lighthouses, that tell you where they are in space. They do not tell you where you are. Your navigation device uses the satellites as reference points to determine your coordinates on the Earth in terms of latitude, longitude, and altitude.

Of course, raw coordinates are useless without a map. The earliest GPS receivers did not have built-in maps, so users had to plot their coordinates on paper maps to navigate. Only in recent years has the technology existed to include digital mapping features in affordable navigation devices. Even today, many GPS units don't come with maps -- for example, tracking devices used on prisoners and animals.

Who Provides the Maps?

The maps and other information about roads, addresses, businesses, etc., are loaded onto consumer navigation devices by the commercial companies that manufacture them. The U.S. government's GPS program does not provide any of this data.

GPS device screenshot Modern navigation devices are loaded with information on local hotels, shopping, etc.

Most device makers get their maps and data from commercial sources, such as TomTom (Tele Atlas), Nokia (NAVTEQ), and Google. Apple collects its own data and combines it with data from TomTom. Some devices use open source data from the OpenStreetMap project.

In addition to maps, many navigation devices offer features such as route suggestions, traffic alerts, and voice announcements of turns and street names. These extras are provided by commercial device makers and have no connection to the government's GPS program.

Why Are My Maps/Routes Incorrect?

If your navigation device says you are driving off-road when you aren't, it's possible your GPS coordinates are correct, but your device is drawing the road incorrectly.

Some information in your navigation device may be based on older maps prepared before the era of GPS precision. Also, maps require constant updates to stay accurate. Roads continually change due to construction, temporary detours, etc. New housing developments and business parks appear every week. And restaurants and stores are always opening, closing, relocating, or changing names.

Road closed sign Maps need constant updating to keep up with changing roads and traffic patterns.

Even a brand new vehicle with an installed navigation system could have outdated map information if, for example, it sat at the dealership for a few months before you bought it. If you do not install the latest maps or subscribe to an update service, your navigation system will fall even further behind the times.

Another cause of map errors is the software that approximates the location of street addresses. For example, say you live at 150 Main Street, next to a large property that occupies two-thirds of the block. Lacking a plot-by-plot map of your neighborhood, a navigation device may assume your home is halfway up the block, leading delivery trucks to the wrong location.

Devices providing route assistance need both their maps and software to be up to date, or they may make bad suggestions, such as taking a dirt road through someone's private property.

In any case, homes and businesses are required to have their addresses clearly visible from the street. More importantly, drivers are still responsible for observing posted road signs and using common sense.

What Can I Do To Fix Map/Route Errors?

Navigation device with USB cable Most devices can connect to a computer to receive new maps and software.

First, make sure your device maps are up to date. Some device makers charge fees for updates but also offer free access to user-submitted map fixes. Read your user manual and contact your device manufacturer to learn the best way to update it.

If your device is up to date -- or if you are concerned about errors on other people's devices -- use the links below to report the problem directly to the map makers.

The websites above are not run by the government and may require registration. We list them for information only and do not endorse any non-governmental products, services, or views.

Some devices, such as those from Apple, let you enter map fixes directly on screen. The devices then send your corrections wirelessly or use your PC's Internet connection to submit them.

After you submit a correction, the map makers may take weeks or months to verify it and issue a map update. Unless your device uses an online map, your must manually download the update in order to see the change. Likewise, other people won't see the change until they update their devices or buy new ones.


This story was originally published in May 2011. We updated it in October 2013.

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