Can an app solve L.A. traffic?
While thousands of Angelenos are dreading Carmageddon — the closure of the 405 Freeway for 53 hours — Noam Bardin is looking forward to the challenge. As the CEO of Waze, a community-driven, free GPS application for smartphones, the Israeli-American entrepreneur is the commander-in-car of what his company calls the “Carmageddon Resistance” against the predicted Los Angeles traffic jam of epic proportions.
“The closure of 405 is the best moment to look at this app and understand what it can do for you every day,” Bardin said during an interview in June in Los Angeles at the Israel Conference, a business and networking opportunity for the Israeli high-tech industry, where he presented Waze to hundreds of businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Waze is a Wikipedia for the road. It functions like a standard GPS, while also offering alternate routes and up-to-the-second traffic information based on the driving patterns of other Waze users (“Wazers”). Wazers participate by becoming on-site traffic reporters, providing Twitter-like status updates on accidents, road closures, traffic jams and police checkpoints. Waze maps are built and constantly updated through crowdsourcing — intelligence gathered by a community of users.
Anyone with a smartphone (Android, iPhone, BlackBerry) can download Waze. Upon opening, what comes up is a cheerful, colorful map with other drivers represented as “speech bubbles” on wheels. Just click on another Wazer to find out that driver’s speed and to see his or her traffic status updates, if any. To ensure safety, Waze offers voice directions, and typing is disabled while driving. You can choose “passenger” mode for reports from a nondriver in the car. To entice Wazers to venture into unchartered Waze territory and hence edit the map in the process, road “goodies” appear on the map for the driver to “munch” and then later trade in for prizes. As a developed start-up, Waze foresees its revenue coming from licensing data and, more important, location-guided advertising.
Leave it to a war-torn country to lead the war against the most mundane enemy of the modern world. As the story goes, Waze was unintentionally started in Israel by engineer Ehud Shabtai, the company’s co-founder and chief technical officer, after getting a GPS as a birthday gift from his girlfriend at the time.
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“He had a map on it that was outdated and inaccurate, so he hacked it to be able to take updates and allow community members to improve the map,” said Di-Ann Eisnor, vice president, Platform and Partnerships, in a phone interview from the company’s business headquarters in Palo Alto. Research and development is based in Israel, and Eisnor is one of just three non-Jews on the staff of 50. “[Shabtai] was a very early advocate of crowdsourcing. He got a ‘cease and desist’ from the map company, so he said, ‘OK, I’ll make my own.’ ”
Shabtai enlisted fellow computer-geek friends to join his driving community to develop an accurate, personalized driving map of Israel until he was able to open it to all Israeli drivers. Today, 15 to 20 percent of the Israeli population uses Waze.
To transfer Waze to other countries, Shabtai took static maps from the public domain and turned them into a functional navigational map. Today, Waze functions in about 100 countries, including some Arab countries. Waze’s main competition is Google’s GPS over the Android platform, and Nokia’s Navteq, but, said Eisnor, those lack the crowdsourcing and social components.
Registered Waze users can communicate with one another and create driving groups. The social component, Eisnor thinks, is what makes Italy the third-largest Wazing country, after No. 2-ranked Israel. “They really love to be connected to one another constantly,” she said.
The United States is ranked No. 1 for highest number of Wazers. In Los Angeles, there are 180,000 Wazers (out of 4.5 million globally), but numbers are expected to spike during the July 15-17 freeway closure.
As the closure approaches, Waze is directing special efforts to arm Los Angeles. UCLA is a co-sponsor of the “Carmageddon Resistance,” facilitating Waze’s work with public agencies to monitor and update traffic around the 405 in
real time and to provide accurate ETAs. Whereas Waze normally generates two to three alternate routes automatically, during the closure it will manually update the map and create more than a half-dozen detour routes with the help of city agencies and Wazers.
But Bardin hopes to wage and win the war on traffic long after the 405 expansion is completed.
“Our goal is to really save you five minutes a day on your daily commute,” he said at the Israel Conference. “Every day we all get in the car and we sit in traffic. And when we sit in traffic, we’re just wasting time. Nobody earns anything — except for some radical regimes in our part of the world — but nobody earns anything from traffic. It’s just a waste of resources, and if I could save you just five minutes a day on your commute, I can give you another week of vacation a year. So this is a gift to humanity in that sense — the gift of time.”