On a recent trip to Israel, I noticed that just as in the U.S. nearly everyone glanced constantly at their smartphones while walking, talking, smoking, drinking their coffee. And nearly every driver used the Waze app from Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) - Get Report to navigate the country's dense traffic from smartphones mounted on their dashboards.
Waze, which has gained wide popularity in the U.S. since its founding in Israel in 2008, is about to become more ubiquitous thanks to its inclusion in the suite of apps available on vehicle instrument panels via Android Auto, Google's solution for operating Android phones via car infotainment systems. Android Auto and Apple Car Play, Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) - Get Reportsolution, allow smartphones to "mirror" many of their most popular apps on dashboard screens, potentially reducing distraction.
Google acquired Waze from its founders in 2013 for just under $1 billion. The Waze navigation app, which co-exists with Google Maps, offers a number of appealing features that allow users to avoid traffic jams, report incidents, connect with other users and, lately in California, arrange carpools with commuters traveling between similar destinations. Think of it as a fusion between a pure navigation app and a social media platform, in keeping with the Waze slogan: "Outsmarting Traffic, Together."
The app's most important feature continuously transmits the user's location, allowing Waze to measure speed of vehicle travel and report where travel is moving slowly or at posted speed. Other apps such as Garmin and Tom-Tom have this feature, too.
After a beta test with 5,000 users, the Android Auto versions of the Waze app goes live at 9 a.m. ET on Wednesday. Waze encourages its users to report accidents, tie-ups, police speed traps and other roadway activity in real-time, which then is reported to other "Wazers," as the company calls its users. Millions of U.S. motorists already use Waze on their smartphones, now in increasing number they'll be able to use it on the latest car models that support Android Auto.
"Waze should grow in popularity here due to its interface and other factors, which people seem to like," said Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst for Navigant Inc., based in Boulder, Colo. "Much will depend whether and how quickly its development team" adds features that are available on the mobile version but haven't yet been built into the Android version.
Among the features missing on the Android version will be voice reporting of hazards and tie-ups, but Google said it will keep working to add features so that the Android Auto Waze will operate like Waze on the mobile app. Waze can be used from an iPhone; so far, Apple has no plans to allow the service to be used with Apple Car Play, Android's rival.
In Israel, buyers of Mercedes-Benz and Kia automobiles can buy infotainment systems that support Waze, including all its features, without Android Auto. In the U.S., at least for the time being, Wazers will have to accept a slightly less competent version of their navigation app if they want to use it through Android Auto. Otherwise, they can buy a plastic mount for their smartphones just like so many Uber drivers.
Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.