Why Google Maps Goes Haywire On Indian Roads

It was pitch black. The shortcut that Google Maps directed them to, off the highway, got narrower as they drove on. No shops. No other vehicles. No street lamps. Just eerie silence. “It didn’t seem like we were headed to the airport,” Nivedya said. “But we pressed on, assuming Google Maps knew best.” 

In an hour, Nivedya was to catch a flight from Thiruvananthapuram to New Delhi. It didn’t help that her brother, who was driving, had to do so at a snail’s pace because of the road’s many potholes. “It was getting worse and worse, and my brother was taking it slower and slower. Then, we finally came to a dead end.” 

Google Maps, it turned out, was seemingly in the mood for a prank. An airport employee later let her in on the joke: the potholed road was a shortcut indeed, but towards the runway. The dead end she was gawking at was in fact the airport’s rear wall. 

“Google Maps should’ve never shown that road to begin with. If I say I want to go to the airport, I don’t mean I want to go to the runway. I want to go to the entrance,” she concluded.

This rather pedestrian logic seemed lost on the most widely-used consumer navigation app. Maps has an estimated 80% share of the mobile map market. Its indispensability not only makes it a strategic geopolitical tool, but also generates billions of dollars in revenue for Alphabet, the parent company of Google. There’s even an economic indicator inspired by it. The Google Mobility Index, as we know it now, was used by the US Federal Reserve, which tracked Maps data as a measure of (in)activity during the Covid-19 pandemic to inform monetary policy. Maps’ application programming interfaces (APIs) power the on-demand economy of ride-hailing apps, quick commerce and food delivery platforms, and even the renewable energy sector. Its newly-launched APIs for solar energy companies alone are expected to rake in $100 million in the first year. Morgan Stanley estimated that Maps earned $11.1 billion in revenue in 2023 (Alphabet itself does not disclose Maps revenue in earnings reports).

In essence, Maps cannot afford to mess things up. Yet, those who use the digital atlas will attest that their tech-sherpa has gotten loopy of late. 

Maps has developed an odd kink for nudging drivers off functional highways, sometimes even with sparse traffic, onto crumbling roads or frenetic gullies. It’ll insist on turns where none exist. If you’re a true believer, you may as well just wrench the wheel wherever Maps points and prepare for your car to get stuck on a flight of stairs. That’s where an SUV driver in Tamil Nadu ended up sometime in January. (A Google spokesperson told The Core that the route has since been updated after the issue came to their notice).

The problem is universal. Google Maps had worse in store for German tourists in Australia who drove 37 miles into a dirt track—closed to the public since December 2023—that Maps suggested before their car sank in mud. Last September, the family of an American man, who died falling from a bridge, sued Google for negligence, claiming Maps led him to drive off a bridge that had collapsed a decade earlier. In Maharashtra, a man allegedly following Maps drowned into a dam in 2021 after driving onto an inoperational bridge.   

It’s a timeless malady: a lifetime will pass and legions of drivers will be led astray before the app finally updates its database to reflect roads as closed, under-construction, or re-dug at the whims of Indian municipal corporations.

Why is this happening?

The Core interviewed former Google employees and a map operator. This is what they had to say.

Order Of Priority 

When a cafe shuts down, a new highway pops up, or a landslide wipes out a good part of a hillside road, Maps should ideally reflect it pronto.

It’s a fair ask, but a tall order. Google Maps covers over 220 territories. It’s impossible to keep an eye on every nook and cranny in the world, then rush to update Maps in real-time.

“There are millions of kilometres [of roads worldwide]. Relative to that, Google has limited manpower to update Maps. So it has to prioritise updates,” said Ashish Nair, a former Google operations leader and current chief technology officer at Potters Maps. 

Nair was hired by Google to coach map operators. The people he managed are the unsung backend warriors who edit maps. Every turn, lane, body of water, road divider, petrol pump, public toilet, shop, eatery, and more is manually labelled, edited, and updated by such operators engaged by Google. Nair estimated that there are about 6,000 of them in India alone. 

But for map operators to update a route so that an unsuspecting user like Nivedya doesn’t end up at a dead end, the complaint must first make it to their desk. This is where “a very complicated AI-driven tasking system” comes into the picture, according to Nair.

This system would sift through thousands of complaints and update requests Google received each day, either from authorities like traffic police or regular users. It then decided which ones were forwarded to map contractors. 

“What are the criteria?”

“Mostly the popularity of roads,” Nair shared.


“Volume of traffic. If there are roads used by millions of people daily, and some used only by thousands of people, Google decides that the less-travelled routes are not high priority.”

And how long does it usually take Maps to reflect whether, say, a road is temporarily closed off?

“If it’s a popular road, I think it takes 1-2 weeks. Sometimes it will get updated in less than 2-3 days. If it’s a less-travelled road even in a city, updating it will probably take a month. Some village roads may probably never get updated,” Nair revealed.

An Everybody Problem

The routes purportedly deprioritised in Google Maps’ backend would include neighbourhood lanes and other shortcuts. Every time it veers you off the highway to one of these presumably-faster routes, it is diverting you from a well-updated, more accurate path to one it probably doesn’t have up-to-date information about. 

But this issue isn’t unique to Google. Almost all navigation apps are only reliably up-to-date for major routes like national highways or district and state roads, said Sravan Manchiraju, a former Google Maps operator.

Manchiraju revealed that roads are classified into five priority tiers: National Highways (Priority 1), state highways (Priority 2), district roads (Priority 3), municipality roads (Priority 4), and countryside roads (Priority 5). The higher the priority, the more frequently the roads are updated. “As a map operator, you have to revisit top routes at least monthly or quarterly just to check for any update,” he said. Even when contractors map and update smaller streets, India’s propensity for improper road signage makes labelling them a guessing game.

Then there’s centralisation.

Ajay Bulusu, who served as an associate program manager for Google Maps, said the app was built on data being centralised in a place. That means a contractor in Hyderabad would be tasked with not just mapping out roads and landmarks in India, but those in as many countries as Google Maps serves. 

Is there a case to be made for a mapping app whose operations are more localised?

Local Derby

MapMyIndia became much talked about when it leaned into PM Modi’s decree of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and pitched itself as a homegrown alternative to Google Maps. The ensuing increase in downloads of its consumer-facing app Mappls—which the company claims surpasses 10 million—and business deals such as a location-based services agreement with the Indian Space Research Organisation helped it report a 32% increase in year-on-year profit in the third quarter of 2023.

The Core met MapMyIndia CEO Rohan Verma at the company’s New Delhi headquarters. Clad in a light blue shirt and black trousers, Verma was seated in a large hall called “the experience room”, where TV screens looped animations of how MapMyIndia’s digital maps work. 

Before this writer could inquire how Mappls keeps pace with India’s ever-shifting roadscape, Verma shared practised talking points: how the company started as his engineer parents’ labour of love in 1995, a decade before Google Maps; how Coca-Cola, which needed digital maps in post-liberalisation India, was a client; and how MapMyIndia’s maps are “enterprise-grade” unlike Google’s “consumer-grade” maps.

Our query matters when you consider that India’s blazing pace of highway construction intensifies the uphill climb of route updating. For context, the Centre has an ambitious target of constructing 13,000 km of just National Highways in FY24. Throw metro projects and four-lane expressways in the mix, and you have additional burdens on existing roads, since traffic is either diverted or roads are cordoned off.

When pressed again about whether mirroring India’s infrastructure boom is tough, Verma said that updating maps is “a cat-and-mouse game where the mouse runs and the cat chases. So anytime the physical world changes, we have to map it.”

How do they do it? Verma said Mappls would be updated every month. But a couple of years ago, the company “disrupted” this cadence. A dedicated team purportedly monitors ground conditions and updates, so if traffic police tweet about a route closure for VIP movement, that intel is promptly fed into datasets and gets processed before Mappls’ routing engine updates in near real-time.

But Mappls’ biggest weakness, Verma admitted, is limited brand recognition.

For now, Google Maps reigns as India’s navigation app du jour, its tendency to occasionally lead drivers to dead-ends being an inevitable byproduct of its gargantuan scale.


The Core sent detailed questions to Google, including requests to verify information shared by Ashish Nair, Ajay Bulusu, and Sravan Manchiraju. The company responded with a statement, reproduced below:

“At Google Maps, we’re committed to building a map that accurately reflects India’s rapid growth. We take information quality and user safety very seriously. We use a variety of sources, including satellite imagery, Street View, third-party data, and contributions from our 60+ million strong community, to map and update millions of kilometres of Indian roads and buildings. We source authoritative information on road closures and disruptions from traffic police authorities in multiple cities, along with our algorithmic, user reported and operations channels, for real-time updates. With our growth in coverage, quality of data and India-focussed innovations, Google Maps is helping hundreds of millions of users across the country every month navigate and explore with confidence. We’re mindful that there remains work to do, and we’re constantly working on improving the Google Maps experience for Indian users.”

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