Four years ago, a few Google Street View cars in Denver took part in an experiment: As the cars made their usual rounds capturing photos block by block, they also used sensors from a company called Aclima to take hyperlocal measurements of air pollution. Now, after a long period of research and development and testing in California, the tech is scaling up to 50 Street View cars in cities including Houston, Mexico City, and Sydney.
Right now, if cities measure air pollution, it usually happens only in a few locations. “The predominant approach to measuring air quality is through a network of laboratory-grade equipment, and because that equipment is so expensive and hard to deploy, you end up with very sparse distribution of that hardware,” says Aclima CEO Davida Herzl.
But pollution levels vary by location, even within the same block. When the project tested sensors in Street View vehicles in Oakland, California, working with researchers to create a peer-reviewed study, they found that levels of black carbon, nitrogen oxide, and other harmful pollutants could be as much as eight times higher at one end of a street than the other. If someone with asthma tries to look up the local pollution levels online–and the nearest sensor is in another neighborhood–the data might not be particularly helpful.
The Street View cars in Oakland carried both scientific-grade equipment and Aclima’s miniaturized sensors, so the company could compare the performance. The devices are now both accurate and affordable enough to scale up. While smaller sensors are becoming cheaper in general, some struggle with accuracy. Aclima worked to create algorithms and designed small hardware that can measure multiple pollutants as accurately as traditional lab equipment, an approach that the EPA validated.
As Google Street View cars drive through a city equipped with the new technology, they will measure ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide, geolocating each reading so that the pollution can be shared publicly. Researchers and cities will also be able to access the full dataset.
“[Cities] need to understand where that pollution is and who it’s affecting, and then really be able to take action based on that data to understand if what we’re doing is having an impact,” says Herzl. “Right now, there is no infrastructure for that. We talk a lot about climate change, but we are missing the data infrastructure to manage it.”
The newly equipped cars will hit streets this fall. “What we’re really trying to achieve here is for the first wave toward our vision of ubiquity,” says Herzl. Aclima hopes to add the technology to Street View cars everywhere, continuously mapping pollution as they drive. The company may partner with other large fleets, such as city bus fleets or ride sharing cars.