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Google Could Reinvent Commuting

Google’s Waze navigation app could slash commuting traffic if a carpooling service it is testing catches on.

Google became an Internet giant by reinventing how we get around the Web. Now it seems to be trying to reinvent how we get to work, and perhaps moving to compete with Uber.

Waze, the navigation app that Google bought in 2013 for a reported $1.3 billion, has begun testing a service in Israel that helps you hitch a ride with commuters making roughly the same journey that you are. Neither carpooling nor apps to make it easier are new, but Waze’s popularity, technology, and data suggest it could make a bigger impact on how people get around.

Waze is designed to help you out even on familiar routes by warning of traffic problems and suggesting alternative routes. It has millions of users, many of whom rave about how it makes getting around easier. Waze gets its data from people using the app, automatically tracking their location and speed, and asking people to manually report things like crashes or construction work.

Deals that Waze has struck with cities including Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Rio di Janeiro hint at how valuable that data is. It sets up two-way trades that swap Waze’s information on road conditions for access to information feeds from police or other city departments on traffic and incidents that affect it. 

All that data, plus the mapping and other resources of Google, could make Waze’s carpooling dating service very effective. And studies on the latent potential for ridesharing suggest that could have a significant impact on our cities and their traffic.

A study last year from University of California, Irvine, and the Spanish telecom company Telefonica used phone records and Twitter data to estimate that New York City traffic could be reduced by 20 percent if people were willing to carpool with strangers who lived and worked within a kilometer of their own places of home and work, and would tolerate up to 10 minutes of extra commute time. In Los Angeles the equivalent figure was 13 percent, smaller because of a much lower population density. If people were willing to pick up and drop off passengers along their route, the researchers’ model suggested, New York traffic could be cut by 44 percent, and L.A. traffic by 40 percent.

Google’s Waze isn’t the only company likely aware of such estimates of the potential of ridesharing. Uber and its competitor Lyft both offer versions of their taxi-style services where you share a ride with other people making a similar trip in return for a discount. If Waze’s carpooling experiment expands, Google will become their direct competitor.

What sets Waze’s offering apart, other than its data, is a focus on using cars that are already on the road. Uber and Lyft turn car owners into essentially taxi drivers: they hit the road to ferry people around for money. Waze’s carpooling service only lets you collect compensation for fuel and wear and tear to your vehicle (Google gets a small cut). That would make riding via Waze’s service cheaper than Uber or Lyft’s equivalents and should mean less conflict with regulators.