Revenge of the Cabbie: Microsoft Uses Taxi Knowledge to Beat Google Maps

Microsoft researchers prove that taxi drivers know city streets better than most online maps–and are starting to bring that hard-earned know-how to you. They’d better hurry.


A new research project from Microsoft taps taxi drivers’ navigational wisdom in an effort to give people smarter driving directions online.

As wonderful as online maps are, you’ve caught them giving you dumb directions before. Extreme examples include the woman who sued Google after being told to walk along the highway, or those unhelpful instructions to jet ski across an ocean. More often, online maps simply tell you to take a major thoroughfare where you have a hunch a few side streets would do the trick faster.

Taxi drivers, in general, are far more knowledgeable about the cities in which they drive than Google could ever be alone. London cabbies spend years learning what’s called “The Knowledge,” a requirement to become a certified cabbie. Studies have shown that parts of cabbies’ brains are larger than average as a result of The Knowledge.

Microsoft hit on a way to pick cabbies brains in China, pulling that knowledge into a database. They collected GPS data from 33,000 cabs, reports Technology Review. The software giant presented its findings at the International Conference on Advances in Geographic Information Systems in California this week. The researchers say the routes produced by their system are faster than 60% of those suggested by Google Maps — saving about 5 minutes, on average, on what would otherwise be a 30-minute drive.

Though the system has only been tested in Asia, Microsoft may try its hand in other cities soon.

It’s a brilliant idea, but it may have come too late to save some variants of taxi knowledge. In New York, many new cab drivers appear so reliant on GPS technology already that the routes they’ve learned are probably influenced by the very systems Microsoft wants to improve upon. If we’re to capitalize on The Knowledge–in London, Beijing, New York, or elsewhere–Microsoft had better hurry up before the last cabbies who can remember pre-Mapquest days retires.


[Image: Flickr user nrollier]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.