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Google Maps focuses on fuel efficiency

Colorado researchers showed how topography and elevation change can improve a route, and how traffic reduces fuel efficiency. Google Maps put the research to use.

GOLDEN, Colo. — Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden have been studying the routes people take, in their cars, to get from point A to point B.

“We saw that somewhere on the order of a third of all routes that people are taking have a more efficient alternative,” NREL scientist Jake Holden said.

That little nugget of information attracted a potential partnership with the mega-corporation Google.

Holden said the company offered to put his research to good use with their popular Google Maps app. He said the company made a commitment to recommend the most fuel-efficient route on their app, instead of the fastest.

"We're not in the business of building our own consumer-facing apps at NREL, so a partnership like this was really ideal for getting our research out there," he said.

Google launched the new feature in early October across the U.S., and will expand it to Europe next year.

There is now a little leaf icon indicating the most eco-friendly route. Click the green leaf on the menu, and it shows you the fuel that could be saved.

Google said their map will only recommend this route if there is not a significant time difference.

“If there is a significant enough time difference, then they will still indicate which route is the most efficient, and you have the option to select that one instead,” Holden said.

He said his team's research showed Google how topography and elevation change can improve a route, and how traffic reduces fuel efficiency.

“The presence of that start-stop can really hurt your vehicle efficiency," he said. "So if you can travel at more of a cruise-like condition, then that can result in a significantly more efficient route.”

Holden said it’s tough to estimate the fuel or energy savings at this point, but Google estimates this feature has the potential to save more than 1 million tons of carbon emissions per year.

You can also choose to opt out of this feature if you still want the app to recommend the fastest route regardless of fuel savings. Google said you can do that in the app's settings menu on Android and iOS phones.

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