By Greg Gerber
Editor, RV Daily Report
A reader sent me a message late last week asking a simple question, does Google share in revenue collected from toll roads? It was an interesting question, especially considering the rationale upon which it was based.
The reader noted that:
- Google does not make it possible for people to change Google Maps settings to always avoid toll roads. It has to be set every time a new route is created, otherwise RV owners can find themselves paying big bucks to be on toll roads.
- When traveling in unfamiliar territory, and using Google Maps as a guide, the reader felt that the app routinely directed her onto highway express lanes, which are tolled, even if the traffic on the main highway isn’t congested at all.
The reader thought that, perhaps, Google was in partnership with state and local governments to “get a cut” of money generated from tolls for simply directing people onto toll roads whenever possible.
As an RV owner myself, I often use Google Maps to check out local traffic conditions and to verify the directions calculated by the RV’s onboard GPS system, which has a tendency to take me miles out of my way and announce my arrival a mile or so before a campground’s actual entrance.
But, there have been several times in the past where I have just blindly followed the directions offered by the gentle, soothing voice of the Google Maps robot and wound up in trouble.
One instance in particular, Google attempted to “detour” me to a “faster” route onto an Illinois road where vehicles had to go under a railroad bridge with an 8-foot clearance that would have taken off the upper half of poor Nelson, my motorhome. Fortunately, I saw the bridge at the last second and simply stayed on the original route for the extra 10 minutes.
But, early in my RVing experience while following Google directions, I was guided onto a toll road where I was eventually charged about $200 in tolls for a motorhome and tow car. I am sure saving the extra 45 to 60 minutes wasn’t worth that extra cost. It was an expensive lesson to learn the first year I operated the motorhome in 2014.
Even in December, when navigating my car through the Miami area, Google Maps frequently directed me onto the express toll roads even though traffic on the Interstate was plugging along at the speed limit. I thought it was strange, but really paid no attention.
So, when the reader asked that question, I thought her rationale was plausible. I posed the question to Google, the world’s largest corporation without a telephone. Journalists and editors have access to a special email address they can use to pose a question to the Googlebots and wait for a response.
A few days later, I received a message from Elizabeth Davidoff, who identified herself as the communications manager for Google Maps.
She assured me that Google Maps doesn’t share in toll revenue generated by state departments of transportation or otherwise make money from toll fees. She also addressed our reader’s reasoning concerning the lack of a Google Maps app default setting to avoid all tolls:
- On Android, there isn’t an option to permanently avoid tolls. However, we clearly mark routes that pass through toll roads with a toll icon that looks like a coin. We recommend that road trippers and RVers who use Android devices, keep an eye out for the toll icon when they get directions or remember to use the avoid tolls setting when getting directions.
- On iOS (Apple’s proprietary system), there is indeed a setting to permanently avoid tolls. Tap the three dot menu from the directions screen, tap route options, toggle “avoid tolls” to the on position, and make sure you toggle “remember these settings” to the on position as well. Drivers who don’t enable this setting can also keep an eye out for the toll icon to avoid routes with tolls.
I found it peculiar that Google doesn’t offer a permanent setting to avoid tolls on Android devices, especially considering that Android is Google’s proprietary system. Acquired in 2005, the software has been the backbone of Android smartphones since 2007. You would think that in 10 years the tech geniuses at Google would have figured out a way to add the feature to software it owns and develops.
It is especially odd considering the option is already available, but it has to be set EVERY time a new route is calculated rather than set as a default option.
After all, if Google Maps can add a default option to avoid tolls on an Apple app, which is a competitor to Android, surely Google could grant its own customers access to the same convenience.
Internet trends research firm KPCB has noted the historic growth of Android devices compared to Apple iPhones in a chart that shows Google’s Android has amassed an 81 percent market share. That makes it all the more unusual that Apple devices have access to an option to avoid tolls when using Google Maps, but Google’s Android users do not.
As for being automatically routed onto toll express lanes by Google Maps, Davidoff offered the following explanation:
- We recommend the fastest route based on real time traffic conditions (and note this with language such as “fastest route, despite the usual traffic).
- We clearly mark when a route includes a toll with an icon that looks like a coin.
- If there are alternate routes available, we highlight those routes and users have the option to select an alternative. The alternative routes include a popup that shows the additional travel time estimated for that route, and a toll icon if the route includes a toll.
Obviously, Ms. Davidoff has never driven a motorhome or towed a lumbering fifth wheel down a busy highway in an unfamiliar city. While Google may mark a toll route on its maps with a coin-like icon, its voice commands followed by most drivers rarely indicates the app is about to direct a driver onto a toll road.
In fact, I’d challenge her to view the Google-generated map on a 2.5-by-4-inch screen while traveling at 70 mph to see if she can spot the 10-pixel icon for designated toll roads. I’d venture to say it is impossible to know you will be encountering a toll road by looking at the route preview when you plot a course at 8 a.m. to drive for six to 12 hours in a day.
Even in the sample below, which routes me from my RV park to the Irving Mall, the big blue route traverses the George Bush Turnpike — a verified toll road where your license plate is photographed immediately upon entering the highway. Do you see the toll icon?
This image on the right is the only way you know if you’ll be routed onto a toll road. I wouldn’t say that is a crystal clear indicator.
Look at the routes below that take me from Dallas to my hometown in Wisconsin. One has the avoid tolls setting turned off and the other has it turned on. So, which highways are toll roads and which aren’t? All Google Maps does is alert drivers that somewhere on the journey of 14 hours and 40 minutes, they’ll encounter a toll road along the way.
If Google indeed does not share in toll revenue with state and local government agencies, then there must be a different explanation for its refusal to provide a default “avoid tolls” option on its own devices, and for failing to adequately indicate what roads are tolls and which are not when plotting routes on the most popular selling smartphones in the world.