Google’s Tricking Out Street View Cars So They Can Map Smog

The tech giant has begun equipping its vehicles with sensors that can monitor pollutants such as methane and carbon dioxide.
Jul 31, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Imagine a future where you type an address into the Google Maps app and it gives you the fastest route plus a measurement of air quality at your destination. That seems to be the direction things are heading, given a new partnership between Google and Aclima, a San Francisco company that designs and deploys large-scale environmental sensor networks. The goal: generating high-resolution maps of the pollution levels in cities.

To that end, the two tech companies have teamed up to equip Google Street View cars with Aclima’s sensors, enabling the vehicles to pick to up emissions readings as they drive around mapping cities and towns. During a 750-hour trial run in Denver, three of the tricked-out vehicles were able to detect pollutants such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, and particulate matter while they cruised the streets.

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“With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, environmental health is becoming increasingly important to quality of life,” said Davida Herzl, cofounder and CEO of Aclima, in a statement on the Aclima blog. Indeed, along with making it tough for folks to breathe, smog is also deadly—air pollution kills about 7 million people around the world every year, according to the World Health Organization.

The hope is that people will be able to access air quality information as easily as they check the weather. Being able to drill down into the pollution in a specific location could also help the Environmental Protection Agency better understand air quality. The agency currently relies on stationary sensors to pick up toxins, which is how daily Air Quality Index ratings and Smog Alerts are currently determined.

However, that network of sensors “does not give a detailed picture of a community or urban area such that people can get a real sense of what air pollution is in their immediate surroundings,” according to the statement.

“Our research partnership with Aclima is helping us understand air pollutants at the local and community level, and how they move in an urban area at the ground level,” said Dan Costa, national program director for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. New mobile air measurements can complement existing stationary measurements for a more detailed picture of personal and community air quality.”

You can see the cars in action and learn more about the effort in the video above. Over the next year, the two Bay Area companies plan to map San Francisco’s air. As to when itll be coming to a city near you, that remains to be seen.