Waze, the free mobile navigation application owned by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), recently announced that they are launching a new initiative, Waze Beacons, deploying Bluetooth beacons inside major tunnels to enable their navigation application to monitor the locations of cars moving inside tunnels.
Bluetooth beacons are one of the technologies used for indoor location positioning, the growing field that includes mobile applications and electronic devices that can measure location in a manner similar to GPS, but indoors, where GPS signals are not available. Indoor location solutions are currently being rolled out in retail stores to help customers find products, in malls to help customers find stores and help friends find each other, in airports to help travelers find their gates, and much more.
The Waze Beacons are the first time that indoor location technology is being used commercially to help automobile navigation in GPS-deprived places. The beacons transmit unique identifying data that the Waze app, running on phones in cars, receives and uses to estimate location. The beacons do not receive any data; all the calculation happens on the phones. The beacon signals can also, in principle, be received and utilized by other apps.
With GPS signals unavailable in tunnels, navigation applications and devices in cars cannot update their location as they move through the tunnels. In tunnels that include exits and turns, such as Boston's Central Artery and Chicago's Lower Loop, the GPS systems will be unable to navigate drivers through the turns. Even in tunnels that just go from point A to point B, such as New York's Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the lack of updated location positioning means that apps cannot warn you about turns you need to make immediately after leaving the tunnel. This is the problem that Waze engineer Gil Disatnik set out to solve. The result was Waze Beacons.
Regular Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons were not up to the task of moving cars. One challenge related to the speed of moving cars. Bluetooth beacon signals are generally received with a delay of 1-2 seconds, if not more. This may not be a problem while walking around a mall or an airport, but in 2 seconds a car moving at 55 mph (90 kmh) will travel 50 meters, which is 10 meters more than the 40 meter range that most Bluetooth devices deliver. This means that before a smartphone in a car is able to read a Bluetooth signal, it will move out of range and have to start processing the next beacon's signal.
Another set of challenges revolved around mounting beacons on tunnel walls. First, the beacons had to be strong enough not to be damaged by tunnel cleaners or flying objects. Second, concrete tunnel walls reflect Bluetooth signals and de-tune the antenna, sending the signal back to the transmitter and interfering with the signals.
These problems were solved by Waze in partnership with their partner in the project, beacon maker Bluvision (recently acquired by HID Global), which created a customized patch antenna with a large ground plane, which can transmit towards the cars without interference from the tunnel walls.
The Waze team also worked hard on having the beacons be easy to install. Requiring a tunnel to be closed for installation and maintenance would not be effective for rollout. The solution to this problem involved reducing the physical installation time to one minute per beacon. They also reduced configuration time by crowdsourcing configuration through Waze apps driving by.
The resulting system enables Waze to monitor car locations in tunnels to an accuracy of 13 meters, roughly the distance a car travels in half a second at 55 mph. They did this by simplifying the location positioning problem to a one dimensional one. This is certainly accurate enough for Waze to give navigation instructions effectively. The beacons should operate for up to 6 years without maintenance.
Waze is not saying much about their rollout of Waze beacons in tunnels worldwide, but discussions with city governments and other government authorities are underway. Waze is working with governments and other tunnel owners to market the new capabilities. Grizzly Analytics reports almost 200 companies working on technology for location positioning in GPS-less environments, and the Waze beacons are the first to address the practical issues presented by cars driving in tunnels in a practical solution.
What other in-tunnel uses can Waze Beacons have? One likely possibility is self-driving cars, based on Google's or other's R&D, which integrate several technologies for location positioning both on ground and underground. If deployed widely, Waze Beacons could give self-driving cars a strong corroborating source of location data.
What will be next? Now that Waze has beacons that can be effectively installed in tunnels and other underground places, where else can they be installed usefully? Unfortunately, the Waze team isn't talking. But it is easy to see how useful beacons could be in underground parking, underpasses, GPS-challenged areas of big cities, and other areas where GPS signals are not available. In underground parking garages, Waze Beacons could enable car-finding applications, as well as enabling Waze to start routing before reaching the garage exit.
Bluetooth also has an advantage of being much lower power consumption on the phone than GPS. Over time, if beacons are installed in above-ground public areas, the same technology that works inside tunnels can enable Waze (or Google Maps or other apps) to offer location services with less power usage than GPS currently requires.
More esoterically, I believe that Waze beacons are another step in the direction of Google establishing ownership over the complete information chain. Waze is an independent subsidiary of Google, but the ownership is Google's. GPS signals are public, and Waze Beacon signals can be read by anyone, but Waze beacons will give Google ownership of information that will be theirs even as they choose to share.
Google has been very adept at leveraging their control of information all along the chain. It would presumably not be hard for Android to use Waze Beacons to provide location positioning to all Android apps while cars are underground.
Does this effect Google's competition with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)? Apple has purchased several indoor location companies in recent years, two of which gave them technology for self-learning GPS-less location positioning, one based on Bluetooth and one on visual data. But Apple is not competing in the area of navigation applications.
For the public, Waze beacons are going to be great, extending the reach of mapping and navigation applications. Time will tell what other applications Google has for this technology, and what the technology will enable next. Whatever that is, Google will own it.
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