The continuing evolution of Google Maps

Listening to Science Friday last week I was amazed to learn that Google Maps are now 10 years old. I don’t remember using Google in 2005 but I do remember using Mapquest to look for addresses and print out directions and local maps. Yes, pre-smartphones and GPS navigation systems, drivers used paper maps to navigate. The last 10 years have seen some incredible leaps in mobile maps and navigation and map apps are some of the most used apps time after time (ComScore’s latest shows ranks Google Maps at number 7 by reach chart and Apple Maps at number 10.)

Map apps on GPS-enabled smartphones coupled with ever-faster data networks have radically changed how users find, navigate and plan trips, from a local evening out to a week-long road trip. It is no longer possible to get lost when holding a smartphone.

Google Maps started with a desire to create the best maps, inline with their goal “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Their current map products, app and desktop, are an incredible leap compared to what users had access to 10 years ago and to get here they used a smart combination of manual labor (driving around with cameras all over the world) and powerful algorithms. So, what does the future hold for Maps?

Science Friday talked with Greg Miller, who had a chance to see what Google calls “Project Ground Truth,” the next generation of Maps. He described their new goal as more than just organizing information but to keep as up-to-date as possible. As in the past, Google is taking a two-pronged approach to reaching that goal: algorithms and humans.

Algorithms will be used when processing more satellite and aerial data while trying to extract more information from that data. The goal is to read and understand street signs, and not just street names and highway markers but lane and turn restrictions and traffic signage to be able to plan more trustworthy routes. Google claims that such information is not readily available from the official mapping sourses they have relied on in the past. Human interaction will help by reviewing maps and monitoring the algorithm’s analysis.

Finally, as today, the “shake app” feature will allow users to report problems with maps. This is an interesting aspect touched more on by Science Friday’s second guest, Steve Coast, the founder of Open Street Maps, who believes that human intervention should be more than just  map corrections but rather the main source of mapping confirmation. After all, how better to get accurate information than from a human who is at the actual location? He pointed out that open source projects (he used Wikipedia as an example) have historically worked well and have reached incredible depth and breadth, but can navigation rely on open source alone? But I digress.

While I laud Google’s desire to make maps as up-to-date as possible based on more visual data,  I think the future of mobile map apps need two additional, crucial features:

From Palo Alto to San Francisco via Fremont, Hayward and Oakland!

From Palo Alto to San Francisco via Fremont, Hayward and Oakland!

First off, improve route planning taking traffic into account. It is insane that Google Maps disregards traffic information, which it has, when planning a route. Maps still offers, at most, three routes. While time is listed for each route that does take traffic into account, Maps still doesn’t do enough to find the best route. It seems that Google’s algorithm is limited to finding the way to the nearest highway, driving as much as possible on that highway, and going from the highway to the final destination. Observe the interesting route I just recieved to go to San Francisco from Palo Alto: the third option was to add 12 miles and two bridges to my route and go via the East Bay where really a more sane route would explore different combinations of 101, 280 and crossing between them. Route planning needs three critical components in order to take a leap forward in performance:

  1. Real up-to-date information, perhaps from police reports or users,
  2. Using that information to plan better routes.
  3. Changing and adapting those routes, and their accompanying navigation, as conditions change. It makes no sense that hours long journeys are set in stone.

Waze, the company Google acquired almost two years ago, does this almost too well, taking users to side streets and less traveled roads to shorten travel time. Google Maps hasn’t incorporated Waze’s route-creation algorithm into maps, which is a shame. Rerouting cars to avoid heavy traffic benefits everyone

Second, distracted driving is a real problem and route planning and navigation are part of it. While using the Map app is very easy and intuitive, there are many steps to be taken in planning a route and all involve looking at the screen. There needs to be better voice interaction with the application to create a route. Right now, navigation is a single-sided dictation, with the driver’s only way to communicate being a change or route that the app responds to. Perhaps a “driving mode” with voice-only interactions? Or a mixed dialog with full-screen buttons for some decisions and vocal commands for others? Regardless, it’s time for the Maps app itself to tackle distracted driving.

As an avid user of Maps I have written before on smaller feature requests and minor changes. These two feature sets are different and will change how we interact with the apps in years to come.

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