Google Maps is introducing new features to make it easier for drivers to choose environmentally friendly options, the company said on Tuesday. The move is part of the company’s stated commitment to reducing humanity’s carbon footprint.
“In short, Google Maps will default to the lowest carbon footprint route if it has roughly the same ETA as the fastest route,” wrote Dane Glasgow, vice president of products at Google Maps, in a blog post. In cases where choosing a “green” route would add to the travel time, Google Maps will show both options along with each of the estimated carbon footprints.
Google’s proposals use estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, along with information about traffic jams or the known slope of a road, to produce estimates of its carbon footprint, Glasgow wrote.
Google will also improve the visibility of public transport and bike options on maps, so users can see all transport options on one screen and compare them to a destination instead of having to switch between different options.
Maps will also notify users when they approach areas where car emissions are limited. Cities across Europe have recently established low-emission zones – areas where the most polluting vehicles are restricted or banned in favor of environmentally friendly modes of transport such as electric cars.
Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States. A change in driver behavior – especially for those who drive the most – could hurt that number, said Elizabeth Irvin, senior transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The amount of fuel and greenhouse gas emissions you save really depends on how much you drive. This could be very useful for people like Uber, Lyft, or delivery drivers,” Irvin said.
She pointed out a UPS policy of drivers avoiding left turns as an example of a small change that can have a big impact. The policy reduces the time UPS trucks spend in traffic and saves 10 million gallons of fuel and 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to delivery companies.
Still, there are limits to the effects that individual choices can have. “The transportation decisions that people make are influenced by external investment and policy choices that are beyond the control of anybody,” said Irvin. A real reduction in emissions from driving would require comprehensive policies to improve access to public transport and replace gas-powered cars with zero-emission ones, she said.
Google has not provided an estimate of the emissions savings that could result from the new map feature. However, Russell Dicker, the company’s product director, said that about half of Google Maps’ current recommendations are “green” alternatives, according to Reuters.
The company last year pledged to achieve “carbon-free” operations by 2030 and encourage billions of users to make greener choices. After pressure from its workforce and activist groups like Greenpeace, Google also distanced itself from oil and gas companies last year when it promised to stop developing custom artificial intelligence tools for fossil fuel extractors.