Road trips in the digital age

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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.

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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.

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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.

8 comments

  1. Great post! It is impressive how new applications are making our lives easier. We could even say that the world has become a smaller place with applications like Waze and other GPS apps. Before, it was barely impossible getting to a place where you haven’t been before since you needed to be an expert to follow the maps without getting lost for several hours. As an international student at BC, Waze has improved my college experience. I have been able to travel several places in NH, VT, NY and MA thanks to the benefits of GPS navigation. I don’t think I would’ve dared

  2. Enjoyed this piece, Troy. I am also very keen on Yelp. I feel that having reliable, user-contributed content about smaller restaurants reduces our dependency on chains and brands when it comes to looking for a place to eat out-of-town. It is great to find some a small, independent diner or restaurant with character and characters, when you are on the road.

    I think the smartphone has also changed out we entertain ourselves on road trips too.

  3. Great piece! Interesting to see all the ways road trips have evolved with the technology of today and where they may continue to evolve in the future. I also enjoy a good road trip, and am curious whether such a tradition may continue to live on in generations to come in spite of disruptive forces in the auto industry. In a world where personal auto ownership is not necessary, the idea of a road trips may be impossible and/or irrelevant for future generations.

  4. alexisteixeiraa · ·

    Really enjoyed reading this piece and how you connected it to your own life. Regardless of whether you are a big road-trip kind of person or not, everyone can resonate with a lot of what you talked about here. I always am wondering how my parents didn’t get more lost, nonetheless crash when looking at literal maps. I sometimes get confused when I have the navigation tell me exactly where to turn. I also think that it is really helpful for food stops as well as sites to see along the way that you might have missed if not for having your phone and social media. Thank you for an awesome post!

  5. benrmcarthur · ·

    Awesome comparison to how people used to have to map out and plan a road trip! I think we really take for granted how easy it is to get in our cars and simply go. Even with kids going to a friends house growing up, we simply just started driving and asked for the address when we got in the right area. On that note, I feel like our parents had much more freedom growing up. It seems like having a cell phone meant I could always be reached by my parents. Even now, I know that parents track their kid’s’ location so they know where they are at all times. But back to your blog, I agree that the data mining with applications like Waze will be essentially for businesses to survive. It’s a developing age and if a business doesn’t hop on all the technology wave, they’re going to be left stranded in the ocean.

  6. Ciaran_Cleary · ·

    Nice post Troy! It actually blows my mind that people used to rely on actual maps to figure out where to go. I always think about that when people blame cell phones for accidents and stuff – obviously they are a factor – but looking down at a map must have been ridiculous. I remember even later than maps, my dad would print out mapquest directions, which I thought was awesome at the time. There have been a lot of rumors about Yelp being bought at some point. I doubt it would be by Google because they already have Google reviews, but I do think it is interesting to think about a Yelp/Waze type of integration.

  7. Nice post. I rely on these apps pretty much daily on my commute, since they can route me the best way for traffic. I go back and forth between which I prefer, and now I’m back to preferring Google Maps, since Waze got me stuck in traffic today.

  8. zfarkas17 · ·

    Awesome post! I love using waze, I think its a great addition to any navigation folder on a smart phone. As someone who is thinking about doing a road trip this summer it is really comforting to know I dont have it all planned out ahead of time they way you used to.

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