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Google Cars Become Air Pollution Monitors In New Study

American Chemical Society
Researchers developed detailed maps of air pollution in Oakland, Calif.

Researchers mounted air pollution monitors on Google cars driving around to record images for the tech giant's Street View maps. The result, they say, is a new way to measure and track air quality.

The research team, which included members from UT Austin, Google and the Environmental Defense Fund, drove the cars around Oakland, Calif., testing for pollution that comes from vehicles and other sources of combustion.

To get a reliable estimate of pollution levels, the cars pass down the same street around 30 times at different times of the year. The researchers took that data and created what they’re calling “hyper-local” maps of pollution.

Joshua Apte, the UT engineering researcher who led the study, said the maps show how “remarkably variable” pollution can be within cities.

“We can see some neighborhoods have many areas, even specific blocks, where pollution levels are consistently several times higher than elsewhere,” he said. “These hotspots include busy intersections, restaurants, warehouses and factories.”

The team said the monitoring technique could be easy and relatively inexpensive to replicate in other cities. Including Austin?

“I would love to do that,” Apte said, “but not immediately.”

He said one of the reasons the team chose Oakland was because it was right down the street from Google "so it was easier to experiment with these new technologies.” 

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.