A Motorcyclist’s Guide to the Galaxy

Text: Yuval Naveh • Photography: Florian Neuhauser, What3Words

GPX, or GPS Exchange Format, has become the de-facto file standard for overland navigation. Each waypoint in the file uses the WGS 84 coordinate system. In layman’s terms, there are two decimal numbers—latitude, which is north/positive or south/negative of the equator, and longitude, which is east/positive or west/negative of the prime meridian, which runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. For example, the WGS 84 coordinates for the RoadRUNNER offices are 36.042893 latitude, -80.386626 longitude.


These numbers are accurate and useful for scientists and navigation systems. But they are long and hard to remember and share with others. Humans are just not that good at memorizing long sequences of numbers. As a result, communicating coordinates is a slow and error-prone process. A single mistake in just one digit can completely throw off the coordinate.


Using postal addresses is also tedious, since it requires remembering street numbers, names, cities, and postal codes. To compound the problem, addresses have different formats in different countries, and they’re rendered in the local language. Reading or writing a Greek address would be difficult for an English-speaking rider.


Surely, there must be a better way to share geographical information.


Communication for Human Beings

Luckily, not all hope is lost. While we the people have poor digital memories, we are extremely talented at remembering the associations of words, songs, and stories. Even young children can repeat, with remarkable accuracy, every word in songs they’ve been taught in kindergarten or picked up at home.


In practice, most riders don’t need the academia-level accuracy of inches. A few yards will do just fine for common navigational needs. On this premise, UK-based What3Words devised a new coordinate system in 2013. What3Words divided the Earth’s sphere into a grid of three-by-three-meter squares. The company then used an algorithm to assign a unique and random name for each square, or location. A location’s name always consists of three words. The unique name is permanent, meaning that it will never be modified and can be trusted to always be stable and available.


By convention, What3Words addresses start with three forward slashes, followed by three words, with a period between each word. Furthermore, the system generates names in 47 different common languages. This feature allows riders to use the system in their native language, which may not be English. It’s important to be able to easily remember and correctly pronounce the name, otherwise this system wouldn’t be any better than using WGS 84 numbers.


For example, this is the location of the White House, represented in English and Spanish: 



These two coordinates are equivalent. This automatic translation system makes it possible for riders visiting non-English-speaking regions to receive an address in the original language and still easily find the location. Of course, it also works the other way around.


This coordinate system also benefits off-road riders. You can share a location that’s far from civilization and has no postal address to rendezvous with other riders or to get help in emergency situations. Short, unambiguous, and accurate messages can reduce the time needed to meet and eliminate frustration due to missing each other.


In an innovative and surprising move, Triumph has recently incorporated What3Words’ technology into the TFT dashboard, software, and mobile applications of their latest motorcycle models. Riders can use Triumph’s Bluetooth mobile application to navigate a route using the three-word coordinates.


Other tools

The What3Words website allows users to convert postal addresses into What3Words coordinates and to interactively find What3Words locations on a map. What3Words also offers bi-directional conversion between What3Words coordinates and GPS coordinates. The system converts up to 25 waypoints in a batch, which can be useful for trip planning.


The What3Words mobile application, for Android and iOS, can convert What3Words coordinates into GPS data and send it to navigation applications, such as Google Maps. This is a useful tool for riders. I’ve tested it and can navigate to locations quickly by entering the word-based coordinates. Advanced optical character recognition (OCR) image scanning using the phone’s camera or voice input makes it even easier to search for locations—there’s no need to type anything.



As charming and easy to use this system is, there are a few issues and concerns to be aware of. First, it is commercial and proprietary, not an open standard. The location names are fully under What3Words’ control. Using the system is restricted and not free for commercial use. There are different monthly subscription plans with limits on the number of coordinate conversions per month.


Another problem is the cultural context. The algorithm that creates the names selects random words from a predefined dictionary and should not have cultural bias. Still, the final output can be quite odd. Some of the word combinations are just funny, but other times they come off as insensitive. For example, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City has the location code ///dads.voices.living, which is arguably rather inappropriate.



Will other motorcycle manufacturers follow Triumph’s example? It’s hard to predict. An open standard would encourage other motorcycle and automotive companies to adopt What3Words, given the clear value for users and the improved user experience. But license costs and the inability to fix or change some of the cultural context issues may hinder wider spread of the system.


Let’s end this article with a little quiz. Can you figure out where this place is? ///acoustic.patrolman.bank


Once you solve this mystery, I strongly suggest that you plan a trip there.