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Google Equips Cars to Measure Air Pollution

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Google Maps camera cars are a common sight on Bay Area roads, but their functionality has now spread beyond mapping and imaging the region. Mark Matthews reports.

    (Published Monday, June 5, 2017)

    Google Maps camera cars are a common sight on Bay Area roads, but their functionality has now spread beyond mapping and imaging the region.

    Their latest duty: checking the air we breathe.

    The internet giant, in a joint effort with sensor company Aclima and the Environmental Defense Fund, deployed four specially equipped Google cars to measure air pollution in the city of Oakland, and the results of those assessments were made public Monday.

    A video supplied by Google shows the cars driving through West Oakland, downtown and East Oakland for 150 days last year, the Aclima air sensors picking up and measuring the air from block to block.

    Aclima scientist Melissa Lunden, Ph.D, showed off the equipment that pumps the samples into some very expensive instruments that cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000.

    "It all starts at the front of the car," Lunden said.

    The data is analyzed by University of Texas, Austin researcher Joshua Apte, PhD., who found big and consistent differences in air samples captured just within a few hundred yards of one another.

    "There are blocks in Oakland where one end of the block can be eight times more polluted than the other end of the block," he said.

    The team plans to roll out more cities in the coming months and intends to have hundreds more pollution-analyzing cars within the next couple of years.

    Steven Hamburg, PhD., the chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, explained the more you know about where the air pollution is coming from, the easier it is to address it.

    "And we need to find the sources of pollution," he said. "Not just the highways but the individual sources, the sub-block, the restaurants, the small factories or the small facilities. We really need to be able to see it and understand it. It’s not an abstraction; it's real, and it’s affecting us."

    The pollution map created for Oakland can be found on the Environmental Defense Fund website