If you’ve ever relied on Google driving directions for a long road trip, you know how frustrating it can be to lose your data signal. Even in the US there are long stretches of highway with weak or nonexistent cell connections, and when traveling internationally the signal can be even more inconsistent. Unfortunately, unless you have wifi or data, you’ll find that you can get driving directions from Google Maps—and that can be a real problem.
Which is why Google has decided it’s time for a change. At its I/O conference, the company announced a small but extremely useful new feature: Google Maps will offer search and turn by turn directions even when your device is completely offline.
The GPS Approach
Technically, offline driving directions are not a new thing, but in the past they always involved downloading entire maps, or large sections of maps, making such apps large and unwieldy. Google says they’re taking a very different approach, one that relies on your device’s GPS signal.
You may have noticed that when you’re “off the grid” and can’t get a cell signal, your maps app can still pinpoint your location (more or less). This can be maddening, because obviously your phone knows where you are but it can’t give you distances, directions or any other useful info. That’s because GPS works very differently from other cell signals.
GPS only involves establishing a signal with a network of satellites. These satellites are designed to give accurate location info, within a few meters, to a device literally anywhere in the world. They don’t transmit large amounts of information, so even a faint signal is enough to get the job done.
Cellular networks—and data—require much more bandwidth and depend on towers. If you’re not within range of a tower, or if the signal is weak or inconsistent, your cellular and data features are basically worthless.
Previously, Google Maps’ search and driving directions went over data networks (or wifi), and presumably the fully featured version will still do that. But Google is essentially switching more of its functionality to work with the GPS signal alone, essentially making it a pocket-size version of OnStar and other satellite nav systems.
It’s unclear just how much functionality users will be able to get this way. For example, there’s no way local business info will be available offline—that would require storing Google’s entire global database on your device. But they promise that some form of searching on the maps will work with no signal, and so will driving directions.
I’m curious to see just how robust this new offline Google Maps is. We’ll get to find out “later this year,” if the feature rolls out on time.