Could generative AI make Google Maps a full travel app?

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Generative AI has the power to supercharge maps and turn travel planning on its head, according to a report from Lufthansa Innovation Hub (LIH).

In its latest study, LIH says the integration of generative AI with map-based interfaces “not only has the capacity to augment our interactions with the app but could truly revolutionize the entire travel planning process, from inspiration to itinerary creation, and, most importantly, real-time exploration.”

The report, penned by LIH managing director Christine Wang, urges the industry to change how it is using AI currently in itinerary planning, saying that use case doesn’t cater to different traveler preferences and desires. It adds that real-time information is missing so far from ChatGPT or similar applications, which further limits the value of itineraries.

The “All Great Journeys Start with a Map” study also questions whether text-based chatbots and conversational search are the best way to gather information on what customers are looking for.

“Travelers may find it more convenient to select these factors through filters and checkboxes rather than engaging in a text-based conversation,” says the report.

While the study highlights a number of startups, some using generative AI, working to combine travel planning and maps, it says Google Maps is the one to watch as it’s already a tool that millions of travelers worldwide rely on for its immersive navigation features and the ability to serve up what’s available in an area.

The report says: “In essence, Google has built the foundation for an ‘everything-simulator’ within its platform.”

It’s not the first time Google Maps has been mooted as the potential killer app for travel planning. Back in 2019, writing for PhocusWire, travel tech commentator and angel investor Mario Gavira said: “Combine this global army of local experts with Google’s unlimited capacity to track movements of all its Maps users (places visited, saved, rated, etc.) and you get the picture: a rapidly expanding database of the nearly entire human knowledge of any place on earth.”

A year ago Wang herself questioned why people weren’t building on top of Google Maps more during an interview at Phocuswright Europe 2022 (full video below).

Talking about innovation gaps she referred to a hiking trip in Ireland and the frustration of switching between maps and other content.

“Why can’t we find data layers and lay it on top and have more value propositions around that. Google Maps or maps in general could be a centralized platform where you could do up super app features,” she said at the time.

The LIH report flags 10 potential AI-powered features that Google Maps could offer including:

  • A “Feeling Lucky” button could suggest a local hidden gem based on location and previous likes, adding an element of exploring.
  • Integrated event discovery would enable Google Maps to show nearby concerts, exhibitions and
    festivals based on your past event attendance and interests.
  • Accessible travel planning with Google Maps using search history on venues with accessibility features to surface routes and facilities to improve travel for those with mobility issues. 

Winner takes all?

“The first path is to see what Google does. I was in Mountain View [Google HQ] one-and-a-half years ago and asked why they haven’t done more. It’s a gold mine, but it doesn’t seem to have interested them much. They are more focused on the B2B business, so the question is whether Google Maps will be the future platform for all these different services or will there be some sort of competitor?” Wang said.

“At this point I don’t see any other apart from maybe Apple maps. And yes you have the Chinese competitors, but is this going to be the platform everyone is going to be building on or will you have a major disruptor coming into the market and actually integrating Google Maps and the data and services into their service?”

She also points to recent announcements from Google around augmented and virtual reality as well as its Immersive View feature, which demonstrate developments are going in this direction.

“The second part is the power of generative AI to better map personal preferences. It’s not something new, we’ve seen how Netflix has done a good job in trying to map our tastes, but with generative AI we’re really talking about much more powerful large language models,” she said.

“The question is how fast does this community develop new features. In a way this is really exciting to think about. If a ChatGPT-underlying technology can really map our preferences, it’s bigger than just travel. There are so many use cases that will span from it if AI really can learn ones own tastes. It’s almost like everyone has their own AI in their pocket.”

Many in travel believe consumers enjoy the travel discovery phase and point to the trail of failed travel planning startups, but Wang says it’s unlikely consumers enjoy trying to sift through endless choices to uncover the little details they need for their trip.

“Citing psychological research findings, there’s a chocolate test. If you give people 60 different pralines to choose from or three, it’s either too overwhelming or they don’t feel like they have the choice. So, researchers settled at around six,” she said.

“It may be super fun to watch a movie or documentary around Brazil to know where to travel to but then going into the nitty gritty of where to I find ATMs, what do I do, where do I need to go – I think that’s not something people really like to do and that seems more like a chore than inspiration.”

Wang also feels that all the information required to bring map-based inspiration and search to life is on the internet but the question is how it is brought together in practical way, “in the instant that I’m traveling.”

“I think AI can empower it and really help to solve the matching and personalization piece. I do think in terms of interface it makes so much sense to use a map. For me, maps are something that are so good in their interface, you don’t even realize you’re using it on a day-to-day basis.”

Watch Christine Wang talk about the map opportunity in the PhocusWire studio at Phocuswright Europe a year ago:

Executive Interview: Christine Wang of Lufthansa Innovation Hub

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