Here’s One Important Way Apple Could Get Ahead of Google Maps

Apple Maps Hero Credit: The Verge
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Apple Maps has come a long way in a very short time, quickly catching up to the seven-year-lead that rival Google had on it when it was first introduced, and most recently Apple has been taking mapping into its own hands, sending out fleets of cars to collect its own first-party mapping data to not only build its own first-party maps from the ground-up, but also finally offer its own improved version of street view.

As advanced as Apple Maps has become however, there’s still one critical safety factor that it’s missing, and Apple’s not alone in this regard either. According to Politico, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been asking Apple, Google, and Microsoft, among others, to add railroad crossings to their navigation apps since 2016, yet these pleas have seemingly been falling on deaf ears.

“Tantamount to Gross Negligence”

While it may not seem like the most obvious thing, railroad crossings are an important factor in road safety, with hundreds of people in the U.S. dying each year in collisions at railroad crossings. In fact, it was a 2015 incident where a truck driver following directions from Google Maps turned onto a railroad track and caused a fatal collision that prompted the NTSB to ask the tech companies to update their mapping data with information on the hundreds of thousands of railroad crossings in the U.S. According to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there are more than 200,000 railroad “grade” crossings in the U.S. — crossings where roads and rails intersect on the same level.

In a letter sent to Apple, Google, and 12 other tech companies in 2016, the NTSB said that adding information on railroad crossings to mobile navigation apps would “provide road users with additional safety cues … and reduce the likelihood of crashes.” While the FRA received initial agreements from several tech companies, including Apple and Google, to integrate the agency’s data into their systems, very little progress was made, with Google “dragging its feet” and Apple basically going silent on the matter. So far, only traditional GPS makers Garmin and TomTom have complied, and the latter in fact already had full coverage of crossings before the request was made. However, although Apple has traditionally used some of TomTom’s data in its own Maps application, it seems that railroad crossing data is not part of that data.

As far as the FRA is concerned, the failure of these companies to act is “tantamount to gross negligence” according to former FRA chief Sarah Feinberg, who has spearheaded high-visibility campaigns to combat deaths at railroad crossings, adding that it’s “indisputable that they could save lives by acting.”

In a request for comment by Politico, a Google spokesperson stated that it remains “aware” of the NTSB recommendation and that it “will continue to look for new ways to bring drivers useful features that help them get around safely.” However, Google has also told the NTSB separately that it faces a “balancing act” in designing its navigation apps to providing useful information while avoiding distracting drivers with too much data, with former Google D.C. office chief Susan Molinari adding that Google is looking for a “holistic product experience” for its users, and wants to avoid adding features that could “create a sub-optimal experience.”

Tech companies like Google are often cavalier in how they respond to regulators seeking to uphold safety standards. What we’ve learned in tracking Google for several years is that Google generally makes decisions based on what will make the company the most money.

Daniel Stevens, Campaign for Accountability

Apple did not respond to a request for comment, although the company has been visibly improving its maps in so many other ways, including adding data on speed limits, accident locations, and more, that it’s safe to say that the railroad crossing data has similarly been de-prioritized by the company in favour of flashier features that it assumes will sell more iPhones and get more users onto Apple Maps. Still, this clearly seems like an area in which Apple could — and should — lead the way, and would allow it to boast of a rare “first” in adding a significant new feature that even Google seems to be uninterested in addressing anytime soon.

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