Airline tickets are reasonably affordable but for some reason I still enjoy a road trip. Maybe it’s because I’m a little nostalgic of family trips we took when I was a kid or the sense of adventure in being able to stop off somewhere random and see something new. It’s one thing to see the country from 35,000 feet, but I appreciate the up-close views of rolling hills, streams, and oceans, especially in the fall. One thing is for sure though, I often find myself wondering “how the hell did people manage before smart phones?” My road trips today look very different than the ones I remember as a kid.
Before a vacation, my parents used to spend time with maps they had to track down from god knows where and plan out their route and pit stops if it was a longer trip. I remember a road trip through Michigan in which my mom had planned several stops based on clippings she had from magazines. Four years ago my parents made a huge leap into the digital world and bought a Garmin, but as we know those devices (that often relied on manually uploading new data) are becoming obsolete as there are a variety of free applications on iphone and android. Today, I hardly spend any time thinking about what roads I’ll take or pit stops I’ll make because I rely entirely on my iphone. I just put the address in Waze and click on points of interest as I drive. If there is an accident, construction, or slow traffic for some other reason, Waze redirects me to the faster route. When I occasionally miss a turn, it auto-corrects and I never get lost. I have never had to play the role of a stubborn man refusing to admit I’m lost and pull over to ask for directions but I have no shame asking Siri.
Waze has become my go-to app since I really value the user contributed data. Users are able to report traffic, hazards, and police/speed traps which allows for a faster, safer commute. Waze rose to prominence rather quickly from 2007 to 2013 when they were purchased for over one billion dollars by google after a bidding war with Apple and facebook. Google and Waze is a natural fit as google is the leader in maps and Waze sees itself more as a data company – together they hope to create the world’s greatest maps. The social inputs of user contributed data as well as recommendations for local businesses (gas stations and restaurants pop up on the map as you drive) create some interesting opportunities for consumers. This is one area where businesses have a unique opportunity to reach new customers and likely a big part of why Google bought Waze.
When traveling on U.S. highways, drivers are most likely to see major chains like McDonald’s located conveniently just off of the interstate or in many states, in travel plazas or rest stops. As someone who really loves food, I tend to look at McDonald’s as a last resort option (the one exception being their breakfast menu but that’s another story). I sometimes use yelp to find a better place to eat and while push notifications have helped yelpers, many businesses have failed to enter even the digital realm of yelp. On a trip I took recently I made a stop in Missouri and ended up choosing a restaurant that wasn’t even listed on yelp. It was the only thing that wasn’t fast food and looked like they had just invested a lot of money in a remodel. It ended up being a great choice with excellent southern food in a homey setting. While their location may help them succeed (I chose to go there after all), being able to reach people digitally will be critical for small businesses to succeed in a market of giants.
Waze can help with this (yelp can too) by collecting user data to make recommendations and allowing businesses to pay to advertise. Currently the platform recommendations are pretty basic (a logo will pop up for a gas station and you can click to make a pit stop on your trip) but I could see this being greatly enhanced by google. It could learn that I prefer certain cuisines or that if there is a particular chain nearby I’m likely to go out of my way (I will go miles out of my way for In-N-Out). Waze has even started working with auto companies to get in the dashboard of your car. Instead of just having your gas light or check engine light come on, it could point you to a service station and give you price estimates. Most importantly for Google, this will allow them to gather massive amounts of data that can tell them about your driving and buying habits which could be where they make their biggest profits. I’m interested to see where Google runs with this and am sure glad I don’t have to use paper maps.