San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Central Valley parts of California have something of an air quality challenge. There are thirty million registered vehicles in California and around thirty eight million residents: this is a lot of cars in a relatively small space and when used, they produce a lot of pollution. The state has a challenging problem of maintaining air quality, and ultimately improving matters, but part of the problem is understanding the current air quality so that the authorities can do something about it. Air quality is a difficult metric to measure and is typically measured at a city level rather than a street level. One of Google's latest initiatives is to equip their Street View cars with the Aclima air pollution sensor suite, or platform. This data will be fed into Google's mapping systems (chiefly Google Earth) where it will be available to anybody who wishes to study and perhaps process the information. It will bring street-level air quality information into the public domain, which in turn will provide the authorities with another source of data. Google's California Aclima project joins other similar projects, such as mapping air pollution in Denver.
The Aclima system measures a number of pollutants known to trigger asthma attacks and make COPD worse, chiefly black carbon and particulate matter (essentially, soot) and ozone. Google's Blog tells us that these pollutants lead to millions of premature deaths each year and the company envisages that this information may be used by city planners to devise specific solutions to areas of poor air quality, or parents to find parks where the air quality is better (especially for those of asthmatic children), or cyclists to devise routes that have a higher average air quality. There are other ways that the data could be used, such as measuring and assessing any changes to air quality as conditions are changed. Optimizing traffic light patterns so as to reduce engine idling times, or diverting heavy trucks to avoid areas known to already have low air quality issues.
Google's stated long term ambition with this project – and others like it – is "to help individuals, communities and policy-makers to make smart decisions to improve their health and our environment." The plan is to provide the necessary data to allow and measure improvements. Google's Street View cars are in a prime place in order to collect data about our environment across the spectrum and incorporating air quality sensors into the cars is a logical next step. It's possible that Google will expand the Aclima air quality project across the rest of the world in due course.