You know that scene from Star Wars: Episode III when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duel surrounded by lava on the planet Mustafar?
According to Andy Ruther’s account, that was the view from his car early last Wednesday morning when the mapping app Waze directed him off the 405 highway in Los Angeles.
“I’m driving around and through this, and you see the bushes burning and everything going up in flames,” the Venice Beach-based actor said.
“Some of the apps did not recognise where the actual fires were,” Los Angeles Police Department Officer Mike Lopez explained.
“It was directing them directly into the fires.”
Police were also concerned that drivers were left unaware of street closures.
“We weren’t saying not to use [the mapping app], we were saying use it with caution,” officer Lopez added.
The top mapping apps are increasingly responsive to real-time information about our cities and suburbs.
Google Maps, for example, has begun advising users in certain regions about store hours and parking availability thanks to all the little details we feed into its servers each day.
But when your environment changes in an instant, these platforms cannot always keep pace.
Waze, for example, lets users actively update their map with information about accidents and other hazards. Users also contribute traffic data to the Google-owned app, which allows it to offer drivers alternative routes for the fastest trips.
But sometimes, the route may be fastest because catastrophic fires and smoke have cleared the roads.
Waze spokesperson Robyn Bemment said the company was in direct contact the LA Emergency Management team as well as the California Department of Transportation during the recent emergencies.
“Everything shared with Waze was updated to the map in real time and shared with our community,” she said.
“Crises are by nature unpredictable, and as fires moved rapidly and changed course the task became more challenging. That said, we believe the process worked as efficiently as it could and we’re proud of the work done by all parties.”
Camilla Ibrahim, communications manager at Google, said Google Maps uses “automated and manual” methods to account for road closures.
Blind faith in mapping apps has caused problems in the past: In 2012, police in Victoria warned motorists that an apparent Apple Maps error directed drivers on their way to the city of Mildura into the wilds of a national park.
Expressing amazement at the images of people in California driving among hills glowing with flames, Ben Shepherd, media manager with New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS), said one key message is that people should never drive through fire or smoke.
The RFS makes fire information available to third party services through a feed from its site, which includes fire maps.
In general, the RFS directs people to the Live Traffic NSW app, run by Transport for New South Wales, for the latest information on possible road closures and diversions.
“We work hand-in-hand with them during fires,” Mr Shepherd added.
In cases of extreme weather, it may not be the right time to outsource navigation decisions. Common sense and following official advice may be the “tech hack” you need.
For Mr Ruther, the whole experience has made him a little philosophical.
“We’re so reliant on technology. It’s a catch 22, right?” Mr Ruther said.