How Waze and Google Maps Work on Your Phone

August 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

It was May 2016, and I was on my way to Indianapolis, driving from Orlando. As I was nearing Atlanta, my phone beeped frantically. It was my GPS app, Waze, telling me to exit in a half mile.

I had learned from experience to always follow Waze, so I got over and exited onto some county highway just in time. As I exited, I saw cars stopping on the highway, backing up almost to the exit, the line stretching up as far as I could see

I followed the new directions, driving along county roads east of Atlanta. It took 30 minutes, and Waze finally deposited me back onto the highway, 10 miles north of where I had exited, back into the traffic jam I had left. I was back in the same line of traffic, but only for one mile, and I was only stuck in it for 20 minutes.

Waze location services screen on an iPhoneIt happened less than 30 seconds before I had to exit, but something alerted Waze and got me to change course.

How did Waze know to tell me when to exit?

Have you ever wondered how the traffic function on Google Maps or Waze works? We no longer have the eye-in-the-sky news helicopters flying around town, alerting us to traffic jams., but the GPS systems are gathering traffic data from somewhere.

It’s our phones.

Well, not our phones, per se, but our anonymous aggregated data.

Google Maps gathers its data — our location, direction, and traveling speed — from all Android and iPhone users who have Google Maps and Waze open while they’re driving. It already has all the maps of the U.S. and a lot of the rest of the world (thank you, Google Maps!), and it has kept track of previous travel data, so it can predict future traffic patterns based on past traffic.

And since Google owns Waze, the two share the same data so you can use one or the other and be sure they’re both accurate with real-time information, not something that’s 15 or even 60 minutes old. I never had this experience with a Garmin GPS. We bought one a few years ago, and I stopped using it two weeks later because I downloaded Waze. (My wife was not happy about that.)

Google Maps also knows the speed limits on all the roads and compares that to the current speed of all the cars — well, phones — traveling on that road. If it’s slower than the posted speed limit, or if the cars have all stopped, it updates the traffic conditions and gives it a traffic rating, all according to the speeds that are being shown.

Now, they don’t transmit all your personal information, like “Erik Deckers is heading home to [address] in his Ferrari Testarossa and will arrive at [time].” But it does track “there’s a user traveling on I-4 at 30 miles per hour, but it’s normally a 55 mph zone. In fact, there are a couple hundred phones all traveling at that speed in a 55 mph zone. That’s a traffic jam!”

Google can also predict traffic patterns by analyzing tens of thousands of users who have driven on highways at the same time every day. They know that every day between 4:00 and 6:00 pm that northbound I-69 in Indianapolis is clogged up, or that I-80 through Des Moines is jammed up between 4 and 6 CDT. And that no one has moved on I-405 around Los Angeles since 2008.

That means they can also predict when traffic will be at its heaviest. This way, if you ever use the “Go Later” function on Waze, it will look at the historic traffic patterns, and tell you what time you have to leave in order to arrive at your desired time.

(I always leave 15 minutes before that, if I can help it because you never know when there’s going to be a crash that makes everything worse.)

Waze and Google Maps are also up to date on the latest construction traffic patterns. There’s a lot of construction around Disney World right now, and the two have always been up to date with the latest changes. That’s because they’re also using our traffic data to improve their maps by seeing where people might deviate or take new routes, especially when the current maps are showing something else.

My Atlanta story happened again recently when I was returning to Orlando from a weekend in Atlanta. I knew where I needed to exit off I-75 to get home, but all my routes told me to exit around Gainesville, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had thought about ignoring it, but remembered my promise to myself: Always follow Waze.

I exited where I was told and saw that the traffic, just like last year, was backed nearly up to the exit. I realized traffic was backed up for about 5 miles and 30 minutes. My detour took less than 10 minutes, and I missed the entire traffic jam. Once again, Waze to the rescue!

In the end, a GPS system like Google Maps/Waze is only as good as the data it’s getting. So you can help your fellow commuters or vacationers by keeping one or the other open while you drive. But if you’re worried about privacy — remember, they’re not gathering personal data, just anonymous aggregated data — you can turn off your location services on your phone. (Which will also mean Waze won’t be able to guide you accurately.)

Do you use a GPS to get around town or only on vacation? Do you have a favorite program or method to find your way around a new city? Share them in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Used with permission)

About 

Erik deckers is a travel writer, as well as a content marketer and book author. He is the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and has been a newspaper humor columnist for over 20 years

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