Google is updating Maps, Search and other products to help consumers save energy and reduce emissions

Catherine Clifford

On Wednesday, Google launched a suite of changes to many of its core products to help consumers make sustainable choices more easily.

“Today, climate change is more than a threat,” Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and parent company Alphabet, said in a prerecorded video during a virtual press event Tuesday. “It is a real and present danger. From wildfires to flooding to more frequent and severe storms, climate change is the most profound risk we face, one that affects our health, our economies and our future together on this planet.”

Google has been a corporate leader in sustainability. It became carbon-neutral in 2007, meaning that it has purchased offsets to balance all carbon-emitting energy sources since then, and has pledged to run on carbon-free energy by 2030.

“That means every question you ask Google, every email you send, every YouTube video you watch will be delivered without emitting any carbon into the air,” Pichai said. “We think of this as a moonshot” — a long-term bet that could have a big impact.

With the suite of product updates, Google hopes to make sustainability the easier choice, Pichai said.

Here are the changes Google is making to its products. Some of these updates are available as of Wednesday and some are still down the road.

Google Maps: Routes that use less gas

Google Maps will default to the most eco-friendly route when the time it takes to make the trip is roughly the same as it would be without taking carbon emissions into account. This product update was announced in March, but it is taking effect in the United States starting Wednesday and in Europe in 2022.

Google Maps calculates fuel usage based on the road incline, traffic congestion and traffic predictions, said Sarah-Jayne Williams, a director for Google Maps.

To make these routing recommendations, Google has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab, Williams said at the event Tuesday.

If it will take significantly longer to reach your destination by the more eco-friendly route, then customers will be able to choose between the faster or more sustainable route, Williams said.

“We believe the feature will have the same impact next year as taking over 200,000 cars off the road,” Pichai said.

Also, Google Maps is partnering with companies such as Bird and Donkey Republic to expand bike and scooter share information to 300 cities globally, including Berlin, New York, Sao Paolo and Taipei.

With this update, released Wednesday, you can find nearby bike and scooter share stations and “even pinpoint how many vehicles are available in real time,” Williams said. The update will also show where bike and scooter parking is available.

Google Travel: Carbon emissions with flight info

Google will display the carbon emissions associated with a flight in the search results, said Stephanie Horton, director of marketing for Google Commerce. This feature launches globally Wednesday for nearly every flight.

“We’re putting these numbers in context by labeling flights that have significantly higher emissions and adding a green badge to flights with significantly lower emissions,” Horton said in a prerecorded video Tuesday.

Carbon emissions will take into account the type of aircraft and will be seat-specific, too. Business-class and first-class seats result in more carbon emissions because they take up more space, Horton said. American Airlines and Lufthansa will provide fuel usage data to help Google validate its emissions info, a Google spokesperson said. Flight-search platform Kayak, a unit of Booking Holdings, launched a tool earlier this year that allows travelers to sort flights by emissions.

Google also aims to help consumers make sustainable choices about where they stay when they travel.

In the last decade, the number of Google searches for “eco-hotel” has doubled, Horton said, so search results for hotels will indicate whether “a hotel has made meaningful commitments to sustainable practices.”

Specifically, hotels will appear in search results with a badge next to their name if they have received third-party certifications from organizations like Earth Check or Green Key, she said. This feature was launched Sept. 22.

Google is coordinating with the Travalyst Coalition to create an open model for calculating the carbon emissions of a flight or hotel stay to “bring standardization across the industry,” Horton said.

Energy usage info in shopping results

Google will make suggestions on shopping results for energy-intensive products such as furnaces, dishwashers and water heaters that give information about the sustainability of a purchase, Horton said. This feature will roll out in the U.S. on Wednesday.

Also, starting early next year, Google Search will make it easier for customers shopping for a new car to make a green-friendly choice.

First, Google will flag hybrid and electric cars and manufacturers to make them easier to find, said Williams.

Also, Google Search will surface rebate information for a hybrid or electric vehicle, compatible charging stations nearby and typical charging times, Williams said.

These car shopping information tools, along with one that will show total energy costs and emissions information for cars, will begin rolling out this year, with more features coming in 2022, Williams said.

“At the core of all of today’s updates is the concept of choice,” Williams said. “By helping people understand when more sustainable routes, modes or cars are available, we’re empowering them to choose the option that works best for their lifestyle.”

Search results: More climate focus

Later in October, information search results for queries about climate change will appear in a new layout, Horton said. This feature will be available in English, French and Spanish.

“This new layout will show relevant information and guidance from authoritative sources like the United Nations, including concise explainers on the causes of climate change, its effects, and even actions you can take to live more sustainably, like using energy efficient appliances or taking public transit,” Horton said.

Google is also launching a feature that shows the sustainability score of a company alongside its stock ticker and current trading price. The sustainability score comes from the Climate Disclosure Project, Google said.

A new feature on the Google Nest thermostat called Energy Shift automatically shifts heating and cooling energy times when the energy is cleaner, said Ben Brown, director of product management at Nest, in the Google press video released Tuesday.

“This flexibility is key in making better use of clean energy in your area,” Brown said.

For example, the Energy Shift feature will take into account when there is energy supply from clean sources, such as wind and solar. Some utility companies charge more for energy during peak times, and the Nest Energy Shift feature will automatically use energy at the least expensive times, Brown said.

If they want, customers will be able to override the automatic sustainability decisions and manually control their Nest thermostat system.

For $10 a month, Nest customers can opt to be part of the Nest Renew Premium program, which will offset match any fossil fuel-based carbon-emitting energy usage at home with renewable energy credits.

“So you can have confidence that every time you use electricity in your home, whether it’s turning on the lights, running the washing machine or watching TV, it is supporting clean energy sources,” Brown said.

The updates to the Nest thermostat will be rolling out in coming weeks in a preview program.

Future projects: Timed stop lights and tree canopy mapping

Google also teased a couple of projects it is still piloting that are not yet widely available.

For example, Google is working on a research project to optimize the efficiency of traffic lights across an entire city, said Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt in a prerecorded press briefing.

“Inefficient traffic lights are bad for the environment, and they’re bad for public health. That’s because idling cars … mean wasted fuel and more street-level air pollution,” she said.

So far, the team at Google doing research on traffic lights has conducted pilot projects at four locations in Israel, Brandt said. Those pilots have resulted in a 10% to 20% reduction in fuel use and time standing at intersections. The next pilot for this project will be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Also, Google is using artificial intelligence and aerial imagery to see where trees are in cities and where tree coverage is lacking. The beta project is called Tree Canopy Insights.

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