Israeli startup offers an app that helps seven million users in several countries avoid traffic tie-ups.
By Ariel Blum
Getting stuck in a traffic jam can put you in a foul mood all morning. Wouldn’t it be great if you could know before you set out on your commute where the slow spots are and what alternative routes might be faster? Well, now there’s an app for that.
Israel’s Waze is taking on the world’s highways one interchange after another. With seven million users around the world, and adding another 50,000 each day, the maker of the Waze app for iPhone, Android and other mobile platforms has a cunningly simple solution: just drive.
Waze uses the phone’s built-in GPS to calculate where you are, when you’re slowing down and how long you’ve stopped for, and then will post that information to tell other drivers what to expect.
The interface resembles a standard Google Map, but with small icons lining the major roads. The more icons, the heavier the traffic. Separate icons tell you where there’s an accident and when to slow down because you’re about to get caught by a cop in a speed trap. There are even icons to show you every traffic camera in the country.
It was this obsession with traffic cams that prompted founder Ehud Shabtai to start a project, originally dubbed FreeMap, in 2006. It was just a hobby at the time and was based on maps from an Israeli company, Mapa. But when Mapa objected, Shabtai expanded the functionality of FreeMap to draw his own maps. In 2008, FreeMap transitioned into Waze and, bolstered with a $12 million investment, began focusing on the traffic functionality that’s proved the sexiest.
Helping LA residents survive ‘Carmageddon’
Last summer, Waze forged a partnership with the ABC television affiliate in Los Angeles. Some badly needed construction work, dubbed "Carmegeddon", was planned for the city’s largest highway over a July weekend. All the local television stations were looking for an angle that would keep viewers glued to their channel. Real-time data would be key, but every station had the same traffic ‘copters. How could they differentiate their offerings?
With Waze, of course. Employing its army of hundreds of thousands of users on the ground, Channel 7 was able to pass on user-generated instant feedback on alternative routes. The result was more viewers for Channel 7, and tens of thousands of new downloads for Waze. ABC is now rolling out the same partnership in other US cities, such as Dallas.
While Los Angeles may have provided the biggest public splash for Waze, when it comes to the percentage of users per vehicles on the road, nowhere is the impact larger than in tiny Israel.
"We need three percent of all drivers in an area in order to get to critical mass," explains Uri Levine, co-founder and president of Waze. "If you think of France with its 30 million vehicles, that’s 900,000 drivers using Waze. In Los Angeles, with 15 million vehicles, we’d need half a million users." Israel’s comparatively paltry 1.5 million users constitute 20% of all drivers in the country. "We started here first, in 2009, a year before the rest of the world," Levine says. He uses Waze to find out the best routes between his home in Kfar Saba and his office in Ra’anana a few miles away.
Waze is popular in the biggest US cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas and Washington, D.C. – as well as in Italy, France and Sweden. Latin America has Waze fans in Costa Rico, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Mexico.
The Chinese market represents an enormous opportunity, Levine says. It has the highest uptake of smartphone usage and the greatest number of new cars per capita. Although the traffic is horrendous, the government is investing in infrastructure.
Waze’s ability to draw its own maps is key here. "A new bypass might open and no one would know about it initially until drivers started using it and posting it to Waze," Levine says.
Although Waze doesn’t need official permission to operate ("if you’re the first person with Waze to drive in Antarctica, Waze will create that map," Levine boasts), there are some hurdles to succeed in China. In particular, in order to get a proper license, you need to be a Chinese company, which Waze is not … yet. However, Waze’s most recent investment – a whopping $30 million – is from Horizon, a venture capital firm based in Hong Kong, which Levine describes as "very well connected" in Asia.
Traffic-based social network
For now, Waze is not concerned about competition from Google Maps, because Google doesn’t show traffic congestion in real time, Levine says. "It just color-codes alternative routes. That’s very different than making a map ‘actionable.’ If we say you should get off the highway, we need to be pretty sure that what we’re telling the driver is accurate right now."
And Waze has another trick up its sleeve: the ability to connect drivers in a sort of traffic-based social network. Waze allows you to chat with other drivers you see on your Waze map. You can only text if your car is not moving – the GPS takes care of that safety precaution. Waze is now working on a way to save these connections so you can chat later, once you’re at work or home. Levine calls it a "matchmaking" system, not meant for dating but for arranging carpools.
One day it may even be possible to have Waze speak to you or understand your commands using a new technology such as the iPhone’s Siri.
Waze has 70 people working in Israel – more than half in R&D – and another 10 in its Palo Alto, California offices headed by CEO Noam Bardin.