Long gone are the days when the infamously convoluted roadways of New England — and the challenges of navigating them — provided easy fodder for the likes of "Saturday Night Live." Who could forget that famed tag-line from a 1992 sketch: "Can't get there from here."
Today, I — like most people — turn to my smartphone to get me from here to there. And like nearly three quarters of those people, according polling from the business guide The Manifest, my go-to app for turn by turn navigation is Google Maps.
But there is an issue in the heart of Boston, where, thanks to a little $24 billion project back in the '90s, two major highways and crucial exits — not to mention the pathways to and from the airport — all exist underground, where GPS signals can’t reach.
Curiously, this problem already has a solution in place, thanks to an engineer for the navigation app Waze and a visit he made to Boston a few years back.
"I drove into the city. Got lost," said Gil Disatnik, the Waze engineer. "I had no idea where I was back then. Now I know exactly that it was [the] Sumner Tunnel. I took the wrong ramp, ended up in middle of Boston trying to find my way. GPS just failed me."
That experience inspired him to devise a solution: little Bluetooth transponders placed throughout the tunnels that could pick up your location where the GPS signal leaves off. More than 800 of these beacons were installed here in 2017, and similar systems — known as the Waze Beacons Program — are now operating in 16 other cities including New York, Paris and Oslo.
And it works.
Crucially, the system is built on an open source platform, available to anyone, including the two other major players in the map app game, Google Maps and Apple Maps.
"It’s as open as possible," Disatnik said. "No one has to pay Waze anything. No one needs to ask for our permission. No one even needs to tell us about it."
And yet neither Google or Apple has added this functionality to their popular mapping platforms. This is particularly mystifying in the case of Google, which actually owns Waze.
As for why they haven't, a spokesman for MassDOT told WGBH News they’ve contacted both companies numerous times to alert them that the beacons are there and ready to be used, to no avail. This reporter reached out, too. Apple didn’t respond at all. Google declined to be interviewed.
"Technologically, indeed, this is a no-brainer," said Henrique Rocha, an analyst with ABI research. He said it would be fairly cheap and easy to for Apple or Google to incorporate this functionality. But in the case of Google, he suspects the reticence is precisely because it owns Waze.
"It’s trying to have these two services that it controls in direct competition so that one will not swallow the other," he explained.
"You’ve got to look at why these companies are in the mapping game to begin with," said James McCormick, an analyst at Forrester Research. "In large part it is because they are in the data game, particularly the customer data game."
McCormick noted that each of these companies has a different motive when it comes to their mapping apps. And they are interested in the data they gather for different reasons. Waze, McCormick said, is hyper-focused on a quality driver experience and wants accurate data for features like up-to-date traffic conditions. But Google and Apple Maps are parts of larger ecosystems. A big reason they want to help get you from point A to B is actually to sell you on the businesses in between.
"And so when it comes to tunnels, they sort of ask themselves, 'Is this a big market?'" joked McCormick. "And I can imagine that relatively few of their customer experiences take place in a tunnel."
Google did say in an email that they are planning an update in the coming months that will finally incorporate the tunnel beacon functionality. But for now, if you want reliable turn by turn navigation ‘neath the streets of Boston, there’s still only one Waze to do it.
An earlier version of this story misstated the timeline for Google’s expected update. Google said it anticipates adding the tunnel functionality in the coming months, not weeks.