Waze and Means

Uh, Google, did you really think this through?

OK, I’ll back up a bit.

A couple of years ago, an Israeli company released a unique GPS app called Waze. Waze monitored its user’s devices to learn about traffic conditions and driving times, much like other GPS apps. What made Waze unique is that it didn’t just passively watch the device locations. It also actively engaged users, giving them simple ways to report speed traps, traffic jams, accidents, and even gas prices. See someone pulled over by the police? Tap a couple of icons and now everyone using Waze in your area knows that the cops are making traffic stops. Street fair in your neighborhood and traffic is blocked off? Report it as both a traffic blockage and a street festival so drivers can avoid it and party-goers can find it.

The crowd-sourced data model worked out well for Waze, and the app became arguably the most popular third-party GPS program on both iOS and Android. Inevitably, they were acquired. Google paid $966 million last June and, even as the US, UK, and Israeli governments were investigating whether the acquisition was anti-competitive, they started working on integrating Waze data into their own map products.

The app is still available on both iOS and Android; it hasn’t replaced the default map application in Android. Not yet, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t in Google’s long-term plans. What Google has done is interesting–and a little disturbing.

They’ve integrated Waze data into Google Now.

Think about that for a moment, because Google clearly didn’t.

Remember, Google Now is always on, always reporting what it believes to be relevant, important information. Alerts that it’s time to leave for an appointment that are based on the estimated driving time. Directions to the event. Scores of games your favorite team is playing. Useful, timely. OK, great. Except.

Look, I have mixed, but largely favorable, feelings about Google Now in general. But I’m firmly of the opinion that it should not include live traffic information. Whenever I leave the house, if I look at my phone, I find a popup message telling me how long it will take to drive home. Guys, I’m already enough of a hermit. Don’t encourage me to retreat to my cave if I’ve managed to find my way into town…

OK, that’s just mildly annoying. What’s outright dangerous is the live notifications. Case in point: I drove Maggie to BART this morning. On the way home, my phone started buzzing, telling me I had a new message. I finished the drive and then checked the message. Google Now was alerting me to a “traffic event” on the freeway. Remember, I was not using my phone for directions. It was locked and sitting in its holster. In order to check the message, I would have had to pull it out of the holster (a task that usually requires me to use 1.5 hands), hit the power button, swipe to unlock the screen, and then pull down the notification slider. Since I’m not particularly suicidal, I should probably pull over first.

Suppose I do all that. What would I find? “Traffic incident on I-80 W.” Great. Since it doesn’t say anything about which exit it was near, I have no idea if I had already passed it or was approaching it when the alert came in. Even better, I was on 80 East, so it wouldn’t have affected me. Yes, I know that an accident on one side of the freeway usually slows down traffic on the other side as people gawk at the carnage. But it’s rare for the slowdown to be extensive enough to warrant distracting a driver.

So, Google, please give the whole idea a few seconds of thought. If I’m using Maps for directions, by all means pop up a warning of an “incident” in my vicinity. Hell, if I’m using the phone, I could make an argument for a notification. I’m not going to complain too much if my cat videos are interrupted to warn me about an accident that’s going to make me late for dinner. (Yes, I’m assuming that I’m a passenger here. I don’t usually watch cat videos while driving.) But if the phone is locked, that means I’m most likely not in a position to see what the message is. Triggering an audible alert is at best annoying, and might actually be dangerous. Remember, folks: if I have a serious accident because you distracted me at a critical moment, I’m not likely to buy another Android phone…