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Behind Waze’s Ambitious Plan to End Traffic for Good

by Cara Cannella

Waze revolutionized navigation through crowdsourcing. Now, with Google’s backing, the app is rolling out innovative new features with the goal of ending congestion — permanently.

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In the mid-2000s, Waze Mobile co-founder Ehud Shabtai received a cutting-edge gift from his girlfriend: a GPS.

The expensive gadget was supposed to be a helpful device. But straight out of the box, it was already out-of-date and malfunctioning.

Shabtai, a longtime open-source coding enthusiast who graduated from Tel Aviv University with degrees in computer science and philosophy, had the immediate instinct to reinvent. He thought the GPS display should better reflect a region’s changing infrastructure.

Shabtai’s solution? To build an app, joining the elite ranks of innovative entrepreneurs with ideas that resonate at scale. With 80 million monthly active users globally and nearly 400,000 superusers who function much like Wikipedia volunteer editors (editing maps rather than words), Waze Mobile is no longer one coder’s curious upstart startup, but a revolutionary approach to navigation that caught the eye of a tech giant.

Acquired by Google for more than $1 billion in 2013, much of Waze’s value stems from its high rate of user engagement. Unlike traditional navigation apps that simply dictate directions, Waze asks its users to report accidents, backups and other road conditions in real time so other users can dodge the traffic by using an alternate route. Participation is incentivized through “gamification” — users can earn points, badges and other rewards while listening to playful variations on audio navigation (Morgan Freeman’s voice, for example).

The goal behind Waze’s crowdsourced, user-centered approach is an ambitious one: not just avoid traffic, but end it altogether. And it’s not as crazy as it sounds. With a shifting transportation landscape ripe for innovation and Google’s backing, Waze is finding new ways to put its loyal and active user base to use to make that vision a reality, including a plan to make carpooling cool.

Democratic DNA

To be sure, congestion is a problem plaguing cities and commuters the world over. Every year U.S. drivers waste $1,200 in fuel and precious time sitting in traffic, according to a recent study. It’s a problem everyone wants to solve, driving car and tech companies to throw millions at everything from navigation to ride-sharing to driverless cars.

Waze has been quietly ahead of the game for some time. In 2013, when Waze was just a small digital-mapping business with limited resources, it had something Google Maps and other competitors didn’t: richer GPS guidance thanks to its stream of live traffic reports from users.

These users were the cornerstone of Shabtai’s plan to solve for his GPS device’s “dumb” hardware: He grounded the app in software that could be perpetually updated by anyone.

“That in and of itself was a really innovative concept — to develop software that lives in the cloud, can be downloaded to any smartphone, and go incredibly viral, growing really quickly,” says Julie Mossler, Waze’s head of global brand and marketing. “Because we had this community of volunteer map editors, we were able to expand throughout the world from Israel without having to open a bunch of offices or do a lot of hiring. That was key to our success on a limited startup budget.”

That smartphone-wielding drivers of any economic status or market can participate is of core value to Waze, Mossler says.

“Anyone can become an editor. It takes just five minutes to watch [instructional] YouTube videos and begin to make map edits to the kilometer or so around your own home,” she says. “Anyone can have an impact in his or her own backyard.”

These volunteer editors take their role seriously, obsessively spending hours updating map information to help fellow road warriors. This viral, crowdsourced approach to navigation has spread to other traffic-ending ideas, leading the company to roll out a new Waze Carpool app in California and Brazil.

Carpool As the Future

Waze Carpool is going straight to the heart of congestion, trying to get more drivers off the road and into carpools. The app has already connected tens of thousands of rideseekers with drivers willing to ferry them along a shared route, and maintaining that momentum could be the answer to a traffic-free future.

Carpooling had its day in the sun during the gas-price hikes of the 1960s and 1970s, but it never really caught on; the percentage of commuters who carpool has been stuck in the single digits for decades, according to Josh Fried, the San Francisco–based head of Waze Carpool. Even a small uptick in “poolers” could make a huge dent in clearing roadways.

“If we get 15 to 20 percent of people carpooling regularly, we can end traffic,” he predicts. “Double digits every day would mean free and clear highways moving at maximum speed.”

Compared with high-tech Silicon Valley moonshots like hyperloops, autonomous vehicles and flying cars that land on water, carpooling may sound like a snooze, but it may be the most realistic shot at large-scale change in transportation.

“All of that is really cool,” says Fried, “but it won’t happen overnight in terms of adjusting infrastructure and preparing people for a future with robots moving us around. So we’re trying to take advantage of existing infrastructure and roads and build on our platform for people to ride together.”

Uber, Lyft and others offer pooled taxi services, but Waze Carpool targets the everyday commuter heading to and from work. And while other commute-minded carpool startups have come and gone, Fried is betting that Waze’s breakthrough lies in layering its pooling technology on top of already-popular navigation software while building on its user-generated knowledge base. For the latter, Fried hosts meetups of the area’s growing roster of carpoolers to gather their feedback and funnel it directly into the product road map.

“It’s about asking, ‘What do you need? What’s going to move the needle for you and make you change your regular driving patterns?'”

These are questions worth asking when you consider that traffic-free roadways could save people 15 or even 30 minutes every day, according to Fried.

Cities As Active Users

The civic nature of Waze, where drivers are essentially paying it forward to other drivers, sparked another phase of the company’s assault on gridlock. It considered the ripple effect of sharing and how it could help cities tackle infrastructure challenges at the root of congestion.

Its Connected Citizens Program, launched in 2014, essentially turns cities, transportation departments and first responders into superusers. Cities around the world share their infrastructure data to help app users navigate better, while Waze shares its data with cities to help them make better-informed planning decisions, from deciding where to patch potholes to road construction.

With access to all this data from cities and drivers, Waze is especially well-positioned to be the answer to the world’s traffic woes, and even more so amid carmaker struggles to stay relevant and ride-sharing turf wars. Since the inception of Waze Carpool, some cities participating in Connected Citizens are considering subsidizing carpooling for road-weary residents.

“They see the use cases and how powerful carpool can be,” says Fried.

As a regular pooler himself, Fried notes that local carpool culture may not be setting the Bay Area on fire, but it is building community.

“People enjoy listening to the radio together, especially NPR,” he says. “Many of us are commuting to work in Silicon Valley, so there’s a lot of talk about the tech world. We also compare notes on the area’s very challenging rents — where we live and what we pay.”

Against a backdrop of reusable rockets and high-end electric vehicles, a few people piling into a hybrid for the morning commute sounds less than glitzy. But Waze’s origins, stemming from a clunky GPS, should remind us that innovation doesn’t have to be flashy. It’s the little inches that make up a mile.