The San Francisco Bay Area will soon see Google Street View vehicles that not only take snapshots of its streets but also capture snapshots of the air quality in neighborhoods they pass. Google and Aclima, a San Francisco-based air sensor technology developer, announced Tuesday that they are partnering to introduce air quality sensor-enabled Street View cars in the Bay Area, and in the future in other cities.

“We want to understand how cities live and breathe in an entirely new way,” said Davida Herzl, co-founder and CEO of Aclima. This endeavor to bring air quality monitoring closer to the people using a mobile platform has generated interest among both scientists and regulators.

“Environmental air quality is an issue that affects everyone, especially those living in big cities,” Karin Tuxen-Bettman, who manages the Google Earth Outreach program, said in a statement. In 2014, a majority of the world’s population was living in urban areas. It has long been recognized that cities are major contributors to global emissions, and many of them are under the shadow of heavy air pollution that is detrimental to public health.

In a monthlong pilot project last year in Denver, Street View cars equipped with Aclima sensors measured levels of smog ingredients, including nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. The cars also tracked carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon and soot—an array of pollutants responsible for global warming.

Historically, air pollution monitoring has relied on stationary measurement, usually in towers away from city centers, which are not designed to track urban atmospheric air pollution. At the turn of the century, there was some interest in air pollution monitoring in urban cities, said Daniel Mendoza, a researcher at the University of Utah who studies the impact of air pollutants on public health.

The conventional modes of air quality monitoring are geared toward better regulation but do not necessarily relate to the lives of residents. Heavy-duty equipment like that is designed to collect comprehensive data from a site over a period of time. But as technology for air monitoring has evolved, it has made it possible for smaller instruments to achieve acceptable standards of accuracy at the street level.

EPA sees it as ‘obvious next step’
“Putting air monitors in vehicles came out of the Google-Aclima interactions,” said Dan Costa, national program director for air, climate and energy research at U.S. EPA. “It is the obvious next step and a perfect way to move this science forward.” EPA has been involved with the project providing technical expertise and guidance during the Denver pilot, which allowed the company to test its technology and refine it. Costa called the partnership with Aclima “a transformative step to monitoring air quality and what its potential is in the future.”

Advances in technology that have allowed these instruments to become smaller and less expensive also make it possible to integrate them with existing technology, be it a car or a phone. “The integration of these technologies with people’s lives is so fascinating,” said Kevin Gurney, an atmospheric scientist and ecologist at Arizona State University. “This way, they crowdsource the problem with the aid of good sensors.”

Quality control has traditionally been a concern about inexpensive mobile sensors, he said; however, technological shifts are happening rapidly and observers are “beginning to see the power of these technologies.” Scientists are always hungry for data, and particularly for a problem like air pollution. They often don’t have a lot of information that comes from such close proximity to the polluting sources, he said.

The idea of mobile monitoring itself is not novel—it has been recognized as a next-generation air quality-sensing technology. A handful of projects across the country already use these technologies, though the modalities differ from the Street View initiative. At the University of Utah, a team of researchers installed monitoring instruments on the Utah Transit Authority’s light-rail train that runs through the Salt Lake Valley. Using this sensor, they can track levels of fine particulate matter, ozone and greenhouse gases, and because the trains run on the same route, it is possible to trace the pollution levels at the same location at different times.

A ‘fine tool’ to go after polluters
This is one advantage that has led some like Mendoza to question the synergy between Google’s Street View project and air sensor technology. “The problem is that it hits one place only once,” he said. “You wouldn’t see what happens in the winter and summer,” when pollution levels might vary.

While he agreed that mobile measurements improve coverage and are more representative than older technologies, Mendoza contended that “stationary is still the gold standard.” Google and Aclima recognized that the new mobile technology will only supplement rather than supplant traditional ways of monitoring air pollution.

“These sensors do not replace the traditional monitoring that has gone on for all these years,” Gurney said. “I am excited about what it would add to that.”

The technology would improve the resolution of air pollution mapping techniques, experts agreed. “It gives policymakers and regulators a scalpel instead of a mallet,” Gurney said. “It gives them a fine tool to go after pollution sources much more efficiently.”

He also pointed to a less tangible benefit from such monitoring. “Greenhouse gas emissions have been a very abstract problem for the public for many years; it has been associated with polar bears and images of the planet from space,” he said. “All that is perfectly legitimate imagery, but it is such an abstraction from people’s lives. Being able to show emissions as an artifact of our everyday lives, from cars, houses, factories—that is a powerful thing.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500