Google Street View car in East Cambridge

Google's Street View cars aren't just useful for scouting out a locale in advance -- they might be saving the planet, too. The vehicles have just helped the Environmental Defense Fund publish methane gas leak maps for Boston, Indianapolis and New York City's Staten Island. The Google cars roamed around cities using sensors that could detect both the location and scale of one of the dangerous leaks, driving by at least twice to make sure the results weren't a fluke. Depending on where you live, the data is either reassuring or scary; the older pipes in Boston and Staten Island have an abundance of leaks, while Indianapolis' more recent infrastructure is keeping the problems to a minimum.

The maps should help paint a more accurate picture of methane pollution in the US. Researchers are worried that existing estimates are too low, and the Street View cars may have spotted leaks that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Having such a complete, publicly accessible data set could also pressure gas companies into fixing pipes that would otherwise go neglected. The Environmental Defense Fund is most concerned about curbing pollution, but there are also some short-term benefits -- if utilities take action, they could both prevent explosions and minimize waste.

[Image credit: Adam Gerard, Flickr]

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Google Street View cars have mapped methane gas leaks in big US cities