Google mobile maps show when to take side streets

Google's expanded traffic feature will display reports for major surface streets on your mobile phone. But another service may have the ultimately more useful model.

Google Maps showing arterial traffic
Green is good. Red is bad. (Credit: Google)

We've established that Google knows quite a bit about you, and sometimes that's a good thing. Especially when Google plows some of that information back into new features.

Yesterday, my colleague Tom Krazit explored a new feature that's part of the traffic reporting on Google Maps, including how Google is addressing the privacy concerns of the feature since it taps users' information to provide some of its more granular traffic-reporting details. In addition to displaying traffic information for major highways, Google will display it for arterial roads, the class of thoroughfare that represents the next level down in terms of vehicular activity. (This could include expressways and higher-traffic frontage roads, for instance.)

The app works by sucking anonymous data from people using the My Location feature on Google Maps for Mobile. Google sends itself (and throughout the feature's trial has been sending itself) anonymous information behind the scenes, whenever you turn on the My Location feature on a mobile phone. Part of that data returning to Google's headquarters includes your location and speed.

While the expanded traffic map that has emerged as a result of the data gives drivers another layer of service, Google isn't the first to turn mobile data into local traffic. An Israeli start-up called Waze has even more hyperlocal ambitions. Waze also reports highway and side streets, some even smaller than arterial streets. In fact, Waze can use drivers' cell phone data in tandem with the car's motion to create fairly accurate city maps. Moreover, you can actively report traffic accidents and other incidents. Before you depart, Waze can create a real-time route that's more proactive than Google's traffic maps.

While Waze has bright ideas, it doesn't have heft. Like online social networks, it must build its user base to build its database. Google, on the other hand, has a firm hold on real-life users who already have account names and passwords. It also has established highways and arterial roads. If Google is smart, it will not only turn an eye toward even smaller byways, but will also adopt many of the interactive features that companies such as Waze are developing.

Google Maps for Mobile is free to download. On some phones, you can install it from the larger Google Mobile App suite. Visit from your mobile browser to download Google Maps for your phone.

Article updated at 1:40 p.m. PT to include information about a rival service called Waze.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.