Google Maps introduces address descriptors, live view walking navigation in India

Google Maps, as you use it already, is in for a fairly significant change, which you will notice in the coming days and weeks. The tech giant with a specific focus on India, is adding an assortment of new functionality, including address descriptors and walking navigation with live view – a promise of fuel-efficient routing and closer integration with public transport systems beginning with some cities. This, in essence, continues Google’s approach, which puts India at the centre of new feature development, which then sees global adoption.

Google has worked with AI solutions and street images (Representative Photo)
Google has worked with AI solutions and street images (Representative Photo)

As expected, there is significant reliance on AI algorithms, and augmented reality. “In India, it has allowed us to map millions of kilometres of urban and rural roads and more than 300 million buildings. This is serving millions of users daily on average, surfacing over 50 million searches across multiple languages, and powering over 2.5 billion km of directions every single day on Google Maps in India,” says Miriam Daniel, vice president and general manager, Google Maps.

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The India-first ‘Address Descriptors’ feature is an exact illustration of that approach. For anyone now sharing location pins (this can be a home address or your active location) on Google Maps, the app will add as many as five relevant landmarks or popular areas around that address. This landmark reference is very much in line with how we tend to often find our way around unfamiliar roads and areas relying on better-known places (these could be roads, malls, hospitals, well-known buildings, and even markets) to anchor the journey.

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We will get this functionality on our Google Maps app early next year. Therefore, if a relative shares their home address pin for an upcoming family dinner, you will have landmarks mentioned nearby to give you a better sense of where you are headed. This is not the first time Google has tried something like this. Developers using the Google Maps Platform thus far (food delivery apps, ride-sharing apps etc.) have had access to similar landmark guidance since early 2023.

It has been a bit more than a year since Street View was launched (re-introduced then, more to the point) in India, and Google has worked with AI solutions and street images provided by their partners Genesys International and Tech Mahindra, covering 3,000 cities and towns in India. Now, Google is adding Lens in Maps – a functionality that is bound to improve your knowledge and therefore experience – at a location you may not be entirely familiar with.

The way Lens in Maps will work is a user has to open the phone’s camera via Google Maps and point it down a street or market for instance, and the Lens functionality will list nearby shops, restaurants, cafes and other important points of interest (there will be additional details, such as business hours and ratings). Google says Lens in Maps will launch in 15 Indian cities in the first phase, beginning January 2024. However, this functionality will be exclusive to Google Maps on Android, for the foreseeable expanse of time.

The walking navigation experience is lining up for its biggest update in years. “With this feature, you will see arrows, directions, and distance markers overlaid on the Maps screen, helping you quickly figure out which way to head in. Your phone will also vibrate when it’s time to make a turn or you’ve reached your destination,” says Daniel. This will also have coverage over more than 3,000 Indian cities and towns, whilst remaining an Android-exclusive feature for now.

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The displeasure at rising fuel bills, a factor of which is the distances we drive and increased traffic along the way which slows progress, is something we’re all familiar with. Google claims its AI algorithms decoding real-time traffic data, will do exactly what’s expected of the fuel-efficient routing feature. It’ll be rolled out in January.

There is some intricacy with how the fuel-efficient routing would work. Apart from the AI decoding real-time traffic data on your route, factors such as road elevation changes and your vehicle’s engine as well as fuel type will play a role in route suggestions to get you from point A to point B, with as little fuel used (therefore minimising emissions). It is not the same rule of efficiency that applies to all types of vehicles. Hybrid and electric vehicles are better poised to handle stop-start traffic and intersections, whilst internal combustion engines work better if there’s consistent progress (even more so, at a constant pace).

“From its launch in other countries, from October 2021 through September 2023 it is already estimated to have helped prevent more than 2.4 million metric tons of CO2e emissions globally – the equivalent of taking approximately 500,000 fuel-based cars off the road for a year,” says Daniel.

The two-wheeler-specific guidance for a fuel-saving route will first be rolled out in India and Indonesia before the rest of the world gets it later in 2024.

Not many of us may have realised, but Google has an app called ‘Where Is My Train’, that already has more than 80 million users in India. In addition to the movement data for Indian Railways trains that were already covered, Mumbai and Kolkata local trains will also be added to this app in the coming days. There are also partnerships lined up with ONDC (the Open Network for Digital Commerce) and a popular app on the platform, Namma Yatri. Metro schedules will be added to Google Maps, with the expectation Kochi Metro will be the first addition by mid-2024.

The public transport-focused updates come at a time when globally, apps that specialise in specific guidance for public transport travel, have gained traction. Citymapper, covering major cities in Asia, Europe and the US, is an example of that. It is a space Google doesn’t want to cede anymore.

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