MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Countless tech start-ups say they want to change the world.
A visit to the folks who run Waze, the traffic app, gives a more precise variation of that goal: to ease traffic congestion globally and save folks ten minutes a day from their commute.
“Traffic won’t be gone in five years,” says Di-Ann Eisnor, the No. 2 exec for the Israel-based unit of Alphabet’s Google. “It will be better managed.” Google paid $1.1 billion to swallow up Waze in 2013, and also operates its own navigation app, the more widely-used Google Maps.
Waze is the app for finding the best route around town, usually by offering side streets you’ve never considered. It’s beloved by a loyal core of users. When USA TODAY asked readers on Facebook and Twitter recently to name the most useful app of the year, Waze won hands down, followed by Uber, Google Maps, Evernote and Yelp.
You can find the U.S. operations for Waze on the sprawling Google campus here, in a transportation “Geo” wing that is mostly all about Google Maps. Visitors are greeted by a branded Google Maps car and tour bus, and a big Maps icon before entering the building, which also houses operations for Google Earth.
In the small section of the building devoted to Waze, there’s a wall-size Waze map of San Francisco, and assorted Waze swag, along with a handful of employees, including Eisnor, whose title is head of growth; Noam Bardin, the “Chief” U.S. Wazer; and sales, marketing, public relations, business development, engineering and advertising. But the lion’s share of Waze’s 200 employees are based in Israel.
That modest presence masks the impact Waze has had on commuting life.
“It makes your trip more efficient and faster,” says Frederick Lean of Los Angeles. Without Waze, “it would take much more time to get from point A to point B.”
Google was “lucky” to have nabbed Waze for the $1.1 billion price, says Julie Ask, an analyst with Forrester Research. She sees Waze playing a bigger role for Google, as it goes beyond just directions to potentially recommending forms of transportation when you travel—like bus, train or rental car. “It will anticipate what you do, and make your life easier,” says Ask.
With a worldwide user base of 50 million, Waze fits into the Google ecosystem by having loyal users who spend precious commuting minutes with the app every day and view the many display ads that appear on screen.
Just like Facebook has two huge messaging apps, Messenger and WhatsApp, Google is likely to keep Maps and Waze separate, says Forrester’s Ask. That’s because both attract a huge audience of people who spend time with each app, which in turn means more advertising dollars.
Waze was founded in 2007 by Ehud Shabtai and Amir Shinar in Israel as a simple way to get people around.
The app still operates that way. When folks turn it on and take a drive, traffic info begins flowing to Waze. The more apps open and use it, the better the data.
But “let’s not scare anyone,” says Eisnor, vice-president of platform and partnerships. The information is anonymous. “We collect the time stamp and GPS point, we know there’s a car driving.”
Beyond just the app, Waze also relies on its large network of 360,000 volunteer map editors, who spend hours every day updating street closures and the like.
“Knowing a change I make on a map can be beneficial to hundreds of thousands of people is gratifying,” says Chad Richey, a Waze volunteer who spends 30-40 hours every week editing Waze maps. “A lot of public safety is based on the accuracy of map data.”
Recent hurricanes and floods in Texas and South Carolina were instantly updated in Waze, because “editors from all over the country were pitching in, but with a desire to help out,” he adds.
Wazers are incredibly loyal to their app. On the Apple iTunes App Store, there are some 11,221 reviews for the app, to just 1,650 for Google Maps and just 7 for the app that introduced many of us to digital GPS–MapQuest. (Apple Maps is pre-loaded on iPhones, and thus, not featured in the Apple App store.)
Waze’s fans aside, Google Maps is by far the more used app, with a total of over 1 billion downloads. It’s the 8th most downloaded app for the iPhone ever, according to researcher App Annie. (Google Maps is pre-loaded on all Android phones, so no downloads are cited for that platform.)
Google shares traffic and incident data with Waze, “and that feeds into our traffic routing as well,” Google Maps product manager Amanda Leicht Moore says.
The big difference between the two apps: Waze is much more social. You can share your ETA with friends and be active reporting traffic incidents. You can have fun having your directions read to you by the likes of late-night comic Stephen Colbert and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A new promotion for the upcoming Star Wars film has robot C-3P0 tell you to turn right and left, and be aware of an oncoming traffic accident. (These are ads, paid for by the studios and networks.)
Besides celebs and movie studios, who have come to Waze asking to be involved, instead of the other way around, Eisnor has also connected with city mayors and other government officials to share information.
By working together, cities can save on the “top down costs of sending someone in a car once a year to see what’s there,” Eisnor says. “Nobody wants to be the app sending you over a closed bridge.”
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles police chief wrote to Google, complaining that Waze put cops in danger by highlighting their whereabouts to drivers.
But Waze says it reached out to Beck after the letter, and now the department is working directly with Waze. Waze also has the New York police in its Connected Citizens program, to share data. For instance, Waze closed down several New York roads to users on July 4th, in preparation for a parade.
Waze’s traffic information “has given us access to this incredible distributed network of sensors, held in the hands of drivers,” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the Chief Information Officer for the city of Boston. “It transforms the way we think about interacting with commuters.”
Waze’s data gives cities tools to figure out why a gridlock is happening or why a bus route isn’t making its time, and can adjust from there, he adds.
Its thesis was that if all of us were connected, we’d be able to point out the potholes, street closures and the like.
Waze is most popular in cities with heavy traffic, where there are alternate ways to make your commute, notes Forrester’s Ask. In the rest of the nation, where the drive is usually the same, “it’s all about Google Maps.”
Recently Waze refreshed the look of the app for the Apple version, updating it with less clutter and making it less of a battery drain. Waze hopes to have the Android version out by the end of the year.
Meanwhile in a world that’s heading towards driverless cars, Waze says it has plenty of life left for itself in the coming years.
“Robots will still need to know the best route,” says Eisnor. “We have a nice juicy role.”
Follow USA TODAY tech columnist and #TalkingTech host Jefferson Graham on Twitter @jeffersongraham
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1QqGNCa