Waze Social GPS: Should Driving Be a Game?

Social networks and point systems have been successfully worked into location-based apps like Foursquare and Gowalla with such great results that Facebook recently decided to pick up some similar features as well. Today’s app takes this same idea to a new area of travel that’s a little more extreme: driving.

In our review of Waze Social GPS we’ll answer some critical questions: Is a free GPS app a good alternative to the many paid navigation apps? Is it safe to attempt to gather points, report road hazards and make social connections while driving? Find out below!

Overview

The App Store has become littered with GPS apps, but most of the major players are quite pricey: Navigon ($49.99), AT&T Navigator ($9.99 a month), TomTom ($39.99), and Magellan RoadMate ($49.99) just to name a few. In a crowded market of somewhat pricey apps, Waze stands out because it’s free and offers true spoken turn-by-turn directions.

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Waze Social GPS

There’s a lot to like about the concept behind Waze. Simply drive around with Waze open on your iPhone and it will gather all kinds of information from you. Is your car going incredibly slow due to traffic? Waze will note that without you having to tell it. Is the road not quite right on the Waze map? The more you and others drive with Waze, the more accurate it gets. Did Waze tell you to take a detour through Chicago in order to get to the movie theater when you live in Boise, Idaho? Simply head the right direction and Waze will learn the quickest routes.

The more Waze is trained by you and other people using it, the smarter it gets.

Getting Started

As with many apps, Waze wants you to start by setting up an account with them. It’s a streamlined process that simply requires choosing a username and a password and allows you access to a whole host of social media integration (Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare) and features on the Waze website.

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Social Network Integration

From there you’re presented with a short tutorial on how Waze works, which you won’t need because you cleverly read this review, but should probably check out anyway so that there’s not so much pressure on me.

Following the tutorial you’re launched into the bread and butter of any GPS app: the top-down 2-D map. You’re ready to give Waze a spin.

GPS Results

It’s pretty important for me to explain something at this point: I live in Springfield, Missouri. Our city has over 160,000 people living within its borders; we’re larger than your average city and much smaller than places like Chicago or Los Angeles. Thankfully we make up for it by being the epicenter of progressive culture.

Because of Waze’s dependence on its users to provide an optimal experience, the app should theoretically work better in densely populated areas. I knew this going into it and assumed that Springfield would yield decent results, but not spectacular ones. I was wrong.

The first thing I mapped was a local movie theater. From my house the movie theater is about a 3.5 mile drive. Waze directed me to travel 16 miles and approximated my trip as taking 29 minutes. However, it also told me that the “route might not be optimal, but Waze learns quickly.”

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Taking the long way

I drove to the theater using my normal route, then had it route me back to my home. Waze did better, telling me to take a route that was a little over 4 miles; it didn’t lead me back the same way I came because one of the roads I used inexplicably showed up as a dead end on Waze’s map.

Other venues I tried routing had similar results: never the optimal path, but some were better than others. I can only assume that I might have better results in other cities.

Waze has a lot of social features that I won’t dedicate tons of space to, but are worth mentioning. You can share your location and where you’re headed on Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare. You get “points” for using Waze by driving with Waze turned on, driving new roads where no Waze has gone before, driving over special bonus point items Waze leaves on its virtual roads (like cupcakes), and reporting traffic. And while some of this might sound dangerous (“hey, a cupcake!” – CRASH!), Waze wants you to know that they discourage fiddling with the app and driving at the same time.

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The questionably safe point system

In fact, they’ve disabled text entry while the car is moving just to show how serious they are. And it takes an entire millisecond to press the button that overrides this feature.

Critique

My biggest problem with Waze is that it potentially introduces a plethora of safety hazards. One of the most significant of these arises from the reporting system. Waze encourages you to be a good social citizen by alerting other drivers of speeding traps, heavy traffic, road hazards, etc. The problem with this is that you become a road hazard if you’re driving and reporting a road hazard simultaneously. Texting while driving has been shown to have a greater impact on an individual than driving drunk. I can’t imagine that filing Waze reports while driving is any safer and can absolutely see how it could easily distract you enough to have an accident.

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Reporting Hazards

I would definitely recommend that if you do use Waze while driving, make sure you have a passenger that can take care of the demands of the app while you focus on the road.

Final Thoughts

I had bad luck with Waze. It seems that there are several fans of the app, so I don’t want to hate on an application that works well in areas I don’t live. Unfortunately I can only speak to my experience. At this point in its development, Waze is completely unreliable for directions, traffic, or speeding trap warnings. In fact, the closest notification to Springfield was 116 miles away. I can’t see myself ever depending on Waze to route me for a long road trip.

And even if Waze worked perfectly, I don’t like that it encourages unsafe driving. We already have so many distractions as it is, I don’t feel like playing what resembles a game is a great idea while driving down the road. No, you don’t have to do that, but there’s a point system for crying out loud. For some people a point system is like insta-crack: they MUST have the high score.

Waze is an interesting concept and it’s free to download. Just please be careful not to pay for it with your life.


Summary

An interesting concept that, in our testing, still needed much more input from its users to be truly useful. Usefulness aside, Waze has a few features that could be dangerous if used while driving.

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  • Tyler

    I tried this.. While the concept is good.. I just cant do it for several reason. 1. It never gives good directions (I mean it really NEVER gave me good directions, sometimes it didn’t even take me to the right address). 2. As stated in the article, using the reporting functions while driving = bad. Not only is it unsafe but in my city texting while driving is illegal. If you get pulled over, it doesn’t matter what you are really doing, if you are looking at your phone and touching it, you are texting. 3. In my area it often put me in the wrong road, sometimes 1 – 2 roads away from where I actually was.

    What I would suggest is the service tap into another GPS / DIrections service like Google or Bing and overlay their own data onto it with the auto reporting functions, like heavy traffic.

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  • Nicole

    Waze has actually dramatically improved. They now offer the ability to report hazards, police and other traffic concerns simply by voice command. You dont have to touch the phone at all. I personally love that feature… I am able to bypass alot of areas and save time to and from work because of this. It saves me both time and money. Waze is one of the best GPS programs out right now and they are just getting started. More improved features to come.

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