Social navigation app Waze is pushing an update to iOS(s AAPL) and Android(s GOOG) users on Wednesday that will let users report road closures. If enough people use that capability, it could start automatically helping to route other users around the closure.
Waze, you might recall, is one of the apps Apple CEO Tim Cook recommended last fall that dissatisfied Apple Maps users try until the Apple product improved. But it’s been around for two years, and Waze’s maps are available in 45 countries. The free app has been downloaded 40 million times, the company said Wednesday.
Waze is already used to report speed traps, the cheapest gas stations and accidents that other users can see in real-time and plan their routes around. But road closures is the newest crowdsourced feature and will automatically influence other drivers’ directions. It will work like this: if a road is closed due to snow or ice, if construction pops up, or a street is closed for an event, a user can report it and the app will automatically re-route the user around that road. But if a certain number of people report the same closing, then the app will automatically start re-routing everyone around that road.
That “certain number” isn’t the same for every kind of road. Two people can’t report Highway 101 as shut down and cause the app to re-route, for example. Waze won’t say exactly how many, but it would have to be a lot more than a single-digit number of reports to take effect. By contrast, a rural county road may be routed around and considered officially closed after a much smaller number of closure reports.
Waze will automatically detect when a road is back open too — as soon as someone drives through that point and doesn’t report the closure, the app considers the road re-opened.
Waze says it got a taste of the utility of its real-time crowdsourcing after being asked for help by the White House and FEMA to help in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy last fall. Waze asked New York area Waze users to mark on the map the gas stations they came across that were open, the length of the lines, and how long the gas was expected to last at that location.
“Sandy gave us confidence,” Waze spokesman Michal Habdank-Kolaczkowski told me. “We’re not trying to turn Waze into a crisis-solving app, but as a driver you should know what’s happening on the road,” he said, whether that’s snow, a street fair or construction. “There’s a lot of reasons a road can close, not just a crisis.”