Waze: The traffic of the crowds

Crowd-sourced road traffic service is coming to a smartphone near you. Can Waze's route navigation system get better and better as more people use it?

Israeli start-up Waze is at the Where 2.0 conference this week showing off its service for collecting real-time traffic and driving condition data from its users. Currently running on 80,000 smartphones in Israel, Waze shows you traffic flows on highways, and unlike other traffic services, it also shows it on side streets, and it creates routing advice based on that data.

The service allows users to report accidents, speed traps, cops by the side of the road, and other traffic-related items. What's cool is that these items fade automatically over time, and there's also the possibility for the system to ping a driver as he or she passes a previously reported incident to see if it's still there.

Waze on a mobile device shows you nearby traffic and incidents. Waze

CEO Noam Bardin tells me that in Israel, Waze doesn't even use commonly available street maps as its base layer of data. Instead, it tracks users (with their permission), and builds maps from those traces. Then it asks users to name the roads.

In a technology utopia, this product makes beautiful sense. But the real world is messy. You can't roll out a peer-to-peer traffic service and expect it to work perfectly from day one, since it needs a critical mass of users. Realistically, Waze is going to have to roll out its service, in big countries like the U.S., region by region. However, smartphone app stores are national, so there may be unhappy users from under-represented locations. (At least in the U.S., the company will use existing maps as a starting place.)

Then there's the safety question. While the demo I saw, on an Android phone, had simple and big buttons on it like "speed camera," it still represents a distraction, and in our society all it will take is one user causing an accident while reporting another to put the hurt on this feature.

I'll leave privacy and power consumption issues as exercises for the reader.

It's also worth noting that in-car navigator company Dash Navigation launched a product with a similar vision , and it hasn't really worked as business. The company, which originally made navigation hardware, is now just in the software licensing business. The consumer navigation products were never price-competitive with the increasingly higher-powered run-of-the mill navigators from the likes of Garmin and TomTom.

Bardin also belives that Dash's problem was mostly on money side: The unit was too expensive, and furthermore, he says, "If you want to have a community product, you can't charge the members." He points to services like YouTube that take content from, and provide value to, their users, but that have to go to other routes, like advertising, to make money.

Waze, Bardin says, will be a free app for the smartphone users who get it from Waze directly. Revenues will come from selling ads, and from selling the technology other companies (like mobile carriers) to package or re-sell.

When the iPhone 3.0 software comes out, and with it the new terms of service for developers that allow the release of turn-by-turn navigation products, we're going to see several products competitive with standard dedicated dash-top navigators. Waze is different from almost every other navigation product I've seen, but I hope it succeeds, if only because I like the idea of a route navigation system that gets better as more people use it.

In the U.S., Waze is in alpha testing now, for Android users only.

The Web app shows you all the Waze drivers. Waze

 

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