Google Drives Air Quality Research With Street View Cars

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Do you ever sniff the urban air and think, “Gee, I wonder how much nitric oxide I just inhaled?” Probably not, but soon Google will have that data for you.

For a month, three Google cars zipped around Denver for 750 hours and collected 150 million data points about air quality. Their sensors tracked carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, methane, black carbon, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Air samples reached sensors by traveling through tubes coming from holes in the car windows. It looks “like a jumbo straw,” said Davida Herzl, the co-founder and CEO of Aclima, the environmental sensor company that designed the system. “It’s kind of like we’ve given the cars a nose.”

Small weather station instruments called anemometers on the outside of the cars measure temperature and wind-flow data. (Dropping the word “anemometer” during a casual conversation with coworkers also allows everyone to mentally collect data on how smart you are.)

The air quality research is part of a collaborative study by NASA, the EPA, Aclima and Google. The data may just help shape your future decisions such as what part of town to live in, what transportation to take to work, whether to buy an air purifier for your house, or whether to make your kids wear air filter masks when playing in the backyard (just kidding, if the air is that bad, you should probably move).

“We have a profound opportunity to understand how cities live and breathe in an entirely new way by integrating Aclima’s mobile sensing platform with Google Maps and Street View cars,” Herzl said.

“Many things affect air quality – everything from our transportation and energy choices, to green space and the weather. Understanding these complex relationships is critical to managing and improving air quality. The Denver test prepares us for scaling the system and introducing Aclima’s mobile sensing platform to communities anywhere Google Street View vehicles drive. There’s unlimited potential for our work to help improve the health and resilience of communities everywhere.”

Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Google’s Aclima partnership lead, told NPR: “If you’re a local government, you could look at this kind of information and say, ‘What and where can we make some changes on a small scale to have some good impact?’” If a city knows where the most pollution is, it can put green spaces nearby to absorb the pollution.

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Next up is San Francisco. Google cars will check the urban air quality there this fall. Hopefully someday they’ll make it to my home city of Los Angeles, although I’m afraid the pollutants are so bad here it might break the sensors.

Images courtesy of Google

Renee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.