Screenshot of Waze smartphone app, via Flickr
Oh, the route. Aside from the weather, it may be humans' favorite topic of conversation. I learned to drive while Google was still a scrappy startup and smartphones were years away, so I remember well the days of whipping out paper maps and waiting impatiently while relatives argued over whether it was best to take the highway or the back roads home at this hour.
In those days, the route from A to B was by-and-large a static thing. Sure, there were a couple options to choose from. And the advent of the GPS made it possible to re-calculate the route if you strayed off the predetermined course (a feature I remember finding remarkable when it first came out). But even the GPS was, for the most part, just a digital version of those paper maps gathering dust in the glove compartment.
What we're seeing now—with Google leading the charge—is a whole new paradigm: directions that change in real-time by reacting to what's going on in the streets and adjusting accordingly. Essentially, living routes.
This leap into transportation's future occurred with today's integration of the crowdsourced traffic app Waze and Google Maps, already a premier directions resource for tech-savvy drivers. Real-time traffic updates are nothing new; Yahoo! and Google cracked that nut a bit over a year ago, by collecting data from geolocating drivers' smartphones, and from public traffic records. But Waze casts a wider crowdsourced net—its users report about 1 million accidents each month.
Now drivers can add these real-time updates on traffic, accidents, and the like from Waze, to Google's detailed map and voice-guided navigation. The result is a super-GPS that knows where there’s congestion or other obstacles on the road, and will auto-adjust your route around them and tell you where to go.
If Google mainstreams the technology, as one would expect, it could soon be commonplace to set out on your travels without having any idea how you'll end up getting to your destination.
Screenshot of Google Maps integration with Waze, via Google
This is a cool thing. I experienced it firsthand while driving from Cape Cod to New York on a Sunday afternoon, facing a soul-crushing miles-long standstill on Route 95. My friends and I decided to fire up Waze and just "trust" the app, which ended up sending us 25 minutes north—the opposite direction of our destination—in order to avoid the backup. It was counterintuitive and risky, but it worked, and I remember having the distinct feeling I was living the future.
With the rising popularity of smart cars with computer screens on the dashboard, voice control, even augmented reality features in cars, chances are we won't always have to rely on someone in the passenger's seat to send in updates on the road. And while we're at it, why stop there? I recently wrote about a government program to test a technology that enables cars to communicate directly with each other. The inter-vehicle wireless communication would let a car alert another car if there was a traffic jam around the corner, or if the speed limit drops off a few miles up—without any human intervention.
Waze already does this to a certain extent—you can message other drivers on the road directly, and the whole thing is gamified to the max with avatars and prizes and levels for being an active user. On our trip, we realized we were "talking" to the car directly in front of us, which happened to be a Waze named "Ninja."
Eventually, the human feedback element could be bypassed entirely. (No big loss there; I'm not sure gamification has much of a future on the road.) The transportation system could look more like air traffic control—I imagine a busy grid of moving vehicles all aware of each other's location, automated to avoid collisions or jam-ups. In fact, the European Commission is testing a “road train” technology that does essentially that: Cars would run on time tables like trains, using sensors to coordinate their schedules with the other vehicles on the highway.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, and with all the changes technology is bringing to transportation, there's really no way to predict the future. Still I think it's safe to say the static map of decades past is on the road to antiquity.