A phone placed in a windshield mount provides driving directions via a GPS app.

Searching for the most eco-friendly driving route? Google it

Navigation technology has come a long way in the past decade. It’s hard to remember a time before finding a driving route was as easy as opening a GPS-based mobile app.

These tools prioritize a driver’s convenience by suggesting a trip with the shortest travel time, not the most fuel-efficient or lowest emission route. Google and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado launched a partnership to change that. 

Later this year, Google Maps will launch eco-friendly route options in the U.S., and the service eventually will expand globally. The app will default to a route with the lowest carbon footprint if that option has about the same arrival time as the fastest route. If the eco-friendly route would take significantly more time, the user will be able to compare the relative CO2 impact between routes and choose which they prefer. Users will be able to adjust their preferences if they always want to take the fastest route instead of the eco-friendly route.

Google reached out to NREL because the agency’s transportation researchers have been developing tools and resources to support sustainable mobility and real-world vehicle fuel and energy efficiency improvements.

“We agreed to enter this collaboration to help them get this technology implemented into Google Maps, so with their really broad reach they can help their users to select the most fuel-efficient route and thus reduce their carbon footprints,” Jeff Gonder, group manager for NREL’s center for integrated mobility sciences, told Centered. “We’re going to work together and try to make sure the way Google implements these estimates is robust and a good approach.”

Driving through data

A map showing three different routes with the same starting and ending points. An accompanying table shows the distance (in miles), the energy savings percentage, and the time required for each route. Route 1 data: 7.1 miles, 6% energy savings, and 14 minutes; Route 2 data: 8.5 miles, 12% energy savings, and 15 minutes; and Route data 3: 9.4 miles, 0% energy savings, and 17 minutes.
RouteE allows drivers to co-optimize travel time and energy consumption. Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

A challenge of eco-routing is that it requires accurate, real-world predictions for all types of vehicles. These computations must happen quickly and accurately when route-finding. NREL developed two computation technologies that often are used together to suitably perform these functions, Gonder said. 

In the last few years, NREL created the Route Energy Prediction Model (RouteE). The data-driven platform predicts a vehicle’s energy consumption over a proposed route for any vehicle type, existing or futuristic. RouteE works in conjunction with the Future Automotive Systems Technology Simulator (FASTSim). This is an extremely fast simulation tool that models the fuel efficiency for real-world driving, allowing researchers to compare energy consumption for a variety of vehicles or powertrains in different environments.

The tools use ingested data and machine learning to create these energy-consumption estimates and simulations. RouteE provides fuel-efficiency estimates even if detailed, real-world driving data might not be available in certain scenarios.

“If you don’t have detailed real-world driving data but you know the general types of road characteristics that you’re going to be traversing, then it can do a good job of estimating the efficiency of a particular kind of vehicle or experience over future road conditions,” Gonder said. It considers general driving conditions including traffic speed, congestion, road type, and the number of lanes, inclines, and turns. 

Progress through partnerships

NREL is a federally funded research and development center supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. It relies on partnerships with private companies to commercialize the technologies it develops.

“Our mission is to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. … But we don’t make cars and we don’t provide services ourselves,” Gonder said.

“So partnering with companies to implement the research and the technologies that we develop is the way that we ultimately make an impact.”

Although the project with Google aims to achieve the specific goal of adding eco-routing to Google Maps, there is potential for the collaboration to be extended for ongoing tech tweaks.

“There might be room for improvement from the way it initially gets put out. We’re going to plan to do some analysis around how good the estimates are. That’s one area where potential collaboration could be extended to try and help these get better and better over time,” Gonder said.

It’s hard to accurately speculate the future impact of this project, but it has the potential to change how we all use apps for navigation and emissions reduction in the coming years. 

“I’m excited about the potential for that to have broad reach and really bring this particular technology to bear where it can have the most benefit,” Gonder said. “Partnering with a company of the scale of Google is an exciting opportunity to have a significant impact. … We’re really looking forward to working with Google to make this a reality.”

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