Maps

How Well Will 'Google Now' Get You Around? So Far, Not Very

Here's hoping we can avoid a future in which you need to consult three apps to get out the door.

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Google

When I first started trying Google Now, I kept thinking Google had the wrong guy: How could the automated personal assistant in its new Android release suggest someone like me, a regular rider of D.C.'s Metrorail system, drive everywhere?

No matter how car-hostile the event, Google Now's directions required four wheels and a license. Neither crawling traffic, expensive parking nor a driving-not-recommended description like "Open Bar" could knock the app out of its windshield perspective.

It turns out that Google is OK with me putting down the car keys. But its interface needs work, and illustrates a broader flaw with single-mode navigation apps.

Google Now's transit option hides at the bottom of its screen: Tap the vertical-ellipsis menu button there and select "Settings," then "Google Now," "Traffic," and "Transportation mode" to switch between driving and transit.

But this binary switch bears its own problems: equally unhelpful directions that result from a transit-only setting.

In Washington, Google Now provided an hour-plus itinerary from an Arlington Metro stop to the Fairfax County Government Center that ended in a long walk. (Google skipped a more convenient Fairfax Connector bus; that system says it will finally publish its schedules in GTFS format later this month.) In southern California, Google Now's suggested field trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (based on my Mars Curiosity searches) would have taken almost three hours from my hotel in Santa Monica.

Shouldn't an app that reads my calendar, contacts and even search history know to list a faster way between points A and B than my current choice? At some level, Google must agree (although its PR office wouldn't answer on the record); its maps site notes transit times when providing driving directions and vice versa.

But Google's Android app does not, and neither option will advise if bicycling would be quicker. If vehicle-sharing systems like D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare or the wonderfully flexible car2go service enter the picture, things get even more complicated. 

Apple's upcoming iOS 6, meanwhile, exiles transit and bicycling directions to separate apps. And thanks to short-sighted open-data policies, those tools may offer weaker guidance than iOS 5's Google-powered software.

Can we avoid slouching toward a future in which you need to consult three apps to get out the door? I don't know. Ask Google Now instead.

About the Author

  • Rob Pegoraro tries to make sense of computers, consumer electronics, telecom services, the Internet, software and other things that beep or blink through reporting, reviewing and analysis from 1999 to 2011 as the Washington Post’s tech columnist, now for a variety of online and print outlets.