Waze: Navigation Meets Social Networking

Waze map display

Most drivers agree that the built-in navigation systems cars come with, on the whole, suck. Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Many, in fact. Unlike your car, they always have the latest map updates, are constantly aware of changing traffic conditions, and can reroute you accordingly. Waze goes one step beyond and adds a level of social networking, except rather than sharing rally videos and cat pictures, you share useful information like the locations of accidents, construction zones, road debris or obstructions, and even speedtraps. It’s a useful tool that helps you drive, and well worth a review from the perspective of a driving enthusiast.

I first tried Waze almost four years ago. Soon after installing and while running it, my work-owned iPhone 4 suffered a fatal crash that even the Apple store couldn’t fix – they gave me a new phone instead. I wasn’t sure whether Waze could have caused my phone to die, but since I needed the phone for work I chose not to risk reinstalling it. Years went by, many new versions came and went, and many months ago I decided to give it another try on my personal iPhone 4S (which, incidentally, is a terrible brake pad). No catastrophic failures have taken place, so I’ll write off my previous bad experience as a fluke that probably had nothing to do with Waze. It’s available for Android phones, too.

Navigate to PalmerWe all know how navigation apps work, so I won’t dwell on that. It’s very simple to enter either a street address or general location, like Palmer Motorsports Park, and Waze takes you there efficiently and reliably. In the case of Palmer, the only reason I knew I should turn down the road where the only visible signs were “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” was because Waze told me I had reached my destination. The track didn’t have any signs with its name on them yet. But soon, I got to a nice young lady with a waiver for me to sign and I didn’t get kicked out, so I knew it was the right place.

If you enter a second destination while already navigating to a first, Waze asks you if this is a new route, or if you would like to add the new destination as a waypoint on the existing route. The Google Maps app for the iPhone doesn’t do waypoints at all, so this is a huge benefit. (Ironically, Google now owns Waze.) When leaving for Pennsic, I entered Cooper’s Lake Campground as my destination, and then entered a waypoint of Buffalo, NY to force the a route on I-90 instead of I-80 across Pennsylvania.

But it’s the social aspect of Waze that makes it unique. For instance, rather than having to answer the phone while juggling a steering wheel in one hand and a shifter in the other to tell my other half that I’m stuck in traffic and have no idea when I’m going to make it home, I can simply share my route with her on Waze and allow her to follow my progress. That way, she knows as much as I do about my drive. And if I do get stuck in traffic, Waze will send her an updated ETA automatically. Waze only shares this data when, and with whom, you give it explicit permission to do so. If you’ve synched Waze with your Facebook friends or entered them manually you’ll be able to see when these friends are online and nearby. Users do appear on the map, but as a single location where they reported in a few minutes ago, not a live, real time location. If you don’t want others to see you on the map at all, you can engage your Klingon battle cruiser’s cloaking device by selecting the “Go Invisible” option on the My Waze screen. Note: This does not make your car invisible in the real world.

Near where I live in Massachusetts, the exit from Route 2 west to I-495 north is currently closed for construction. Thanks to Waze user updates, this closure is reflected on the map, which displays the on-ramp as a dotted line with a Do Not Enter sign on it. If you need to take I-495 north, it plots a route through the cloverleaves to I-495 south to 2 east to I-495 north to get you where you need to go. When the exit finally opens again, Waze users will update the map again to indicate that the road is passable.

Traffic jam

Waze also tracks your location to discover new traffic jams automatically. If it detects a slowdown, it will ask you if you are in traffic, because for all Waze knows you simply stopped for gas. But the real strength of Waze is its interactive nature. If you do get stuck in traffic unexpectedly, then find that the cause of it is a crash that just happened, you can report it through Waze. Other users will then see it on the map before they get into traffic, and hopefully avoid that traffic altogether. I had to ignore several attempts by Waze to send me around traffic just to get this screen capture.

The same goes for road construction. On my daily commute, some mornings there is an intersection that is completely messed up with construction, yet other mornings there’s no slowdown whatsoever. Waze knows what kind of a day it’s going to be before I do. Though I know several routes to get to work without navigation help, I run Waze on my commute anyway, and if it tells me to take a route around the nasty intersection, like a good Dalek I obey. And if you do end up stuck in traffic, sometimes Waze even displays a graph and a countdown showing you how long you’ll be stuck.

Recently I was driving down the highway, and got a warning about debris on the road ahead. I slowed down, paid more attention to the road than I normally would, and sure enough there was a big chunk of tire in the center of the middle lane. I spotted it sooner than I would if I was in my normal cruising mode, and executed a smoother, safer swerve around it than if it had caught me by surprise. It’s not just a convenience, but a safety aid as well.

Waze police warning
Photo credit: PBS NewsHour

Of course, the feature that may interest enthusiasts most is reports of police sightings. This could mean that police are assisting with a breakdown or accident, or it could be a speedtrap. Last winter, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck expressed his concern that this puts officers in danger by having their locations known and shared widely. The National Sheriffs’ Association shares these concerns, and also admits it impairs their ability to catch speeders. But truckers have shared locations of “bears” they spotted over CB radio for many years, as anyone who has ever seen Smokey and the Bandit would know. It’s also common practice for a driver to flash their lights to warn oncoming traffic that they are approaching a speedtrap. I once discussed this practice with a police officer I knew, and while he did not expressly condone it, he did point out that it encouraged voluntary compliance. If you know you’re approaching a speedtrap, you’re going to obey the speed limit, which is (or at least should be) the purpose of a speedtrap in the first place.

Like a radar detector, there can be false positives, too. These reports are only where such impediments have already been reported. Traffic, debris, or police can pop up anywhere, and could be gone by the time you get there. So take all of this data with a grain of salt. It’s very good, but it’s not perfect. This is not a failing of Waze, but it is a reactive system that is only as good as the data it gets.

One area that I think Waze could do better is actively changing your route in the middle of your trip to react to changing traffic conditions. Early in my trip to PA, I noticed that Waze wanted me to get off I-90 in Buffalo. Later on, when Waze restarted after a lunch break, it told me to stay on I-90. But traffic got dense and slowed down as I approached that part of Buffalo. I quickly cleared, then recalculated my route, and only then did Waze tell me to get off at the next exit. Traffic came to a full stop just after the exit. I drove city streets as directed, skipped one exit and all the traffic on I-90, and got back after it was clear. Waze rerouted me well, but I would’ve preferred it to do so automatically.

Also, while reports are always visible on the map, you don’t get any alerts unless you’ve programmed a route. I wouldn’t expect Waze to give me a warning of a speedtrap on a road it doesn’t know I’m about to turn onto, but if there are no intersections or exits for a mile, it should be smart enough to figure out that I’m going to pass it no matter what and warn me accordingly.

These are fairly minor nitpicks in what I believe is an excellent and useful app. Whether Cannonballing to PA or just commuting to work, it’s a useful tool that helps you drive more efficiently. I won’t leave home without it.