Google's car-sharing app Waze: What does this mean for drivers?

The evolution of Google's satnav app puts the firm up against its old protégé Uber

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The Independent Tech

For the estimated 50 million people who rely on it, the turn-by-turn navigation app Waze helps redirect users around traffic jams, accidents and other obstacles on the road. Now Waze, with a new expansion into car-sharing, is hoping to guide itself around some of the thorniest issues facing the industry.

The Israeli-founded, Google-owned app is now offering to connect people who are headed in the same direction during their commutes. Going into work? Grab a ride with someone with a spare car seat. If you are eager to try it, though, you may have to wait a while: the new feature is available only in Tel Aviv for now, and as a pilot project – though non-Waze users can also join the fun with a separate app called RideWith.

Unlike Uber, which last year launched UberPool, the company's self-styled "bold social experiment" that allows those signed up with the service to share cabs with customers looking for a ride in the same direction, Google's entry into car-sharing will be more limited. You won't be able to just call up a ride wherever you are; according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, drivers will only be able to offer two rides a day and they have to begin either near where they work or near where they live.

Drivers also can't earn much of a profit from participating in the programme. At best, riders will be able to pay a small amount of money to help offset wear and tear, gasoline and other ordinary expenses associated with car ownership. In other words, people won't be giving up their day jobs anytime soon to become drivers for Waze.

Despite these restrictions, it is easy to imagine Waze's expansion someday becoming a full-on ride-sharing service that competes with Uber. Although Google was an early investor in Uber, the two companies have drifted apart as both have seen the lucrative potential of the car-sharing market. Uber has taken Google head-on in the race to build a self-driving car, for instance, in preparation for Uber's eventual transformation into a global logistics and delivery platform.

Waze users are already au fait with the concept of sharing – the app collects GPS data from everyone who uses it. Anyone who drives with Waze turned on passively provides data and drivers are also encouraged to share real-time traffic and road information to help other motorists in the area. It crowdsources ways to beat congestion, in other words.

For now, though, Google's early limitations on Waze appear aimed at avoiding some of the regulatory struggles that have beset Uber around the globe. Uber suspended its low-cost ridesharing service, UberPop, in France over the weekend after authorities clamped down on Uber executives there. In Israel, government officials have vowed to defend traditional taxi drivers against companies such as Uber. This could end up being a good thing for Waze, as its car-pooling service seeks to gain traction.

More broadly, the expansion of Waze is an indicator of Google's worldwide plans for the app, which it bought for roughly $1bn (£650m) in 2013. The deal initially allowed Google to capitalise on Waze's crowd-sourced mapping data (users can alert other drivers to traffic cameras, accidents and other incidents by marking them on the map). But it now appears that Waze is going to become a platform unto itself – which makes sense, considering previous reports about Google being interested in entering the car-sharing market. Let's hope it will share nicely.

This is an edited version of an article first published in Washington Post

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