Google Maps to make our future trips more 'eco-friendly'

Among the new features is an AR tool for getting around airports, trainstation and malls

We may not be traveling around or hanging out in malls much these days, but Google Maps has started preparing us for a return to such places in the not-so-distant future by rolling out a bunch of new and exciting features. They range from bringing its Live View AR directions indoors to adding weather data to its maps, improving 3D models and offering travellers 'eco-friendly' routes.

Of those, one of the most exciting are the augmented reality directions to airports, transit stations, and malls that will allow you to catch a train or a flight while inside the station or airport without being late. Live View directions let you hold your phone up, point your camera at the world around you, and see arrows and icons pointing you where you need to go, and previously, they only worked outdoors.

Typically, a smartphone uses its built-in GPS and compass to determine your location and what direction you are facing in a mapping app. In crowded cities and inside buildings, however, these technologies may not be as effective (GPS, for example, relies on having a line of sight to pass along radio signals from far-off satellites to your phone).Therefore, Live View relies on AI and Google's massive inventory of Street View images. Once the app has a good idea of where you are, it can overlay virtual images to help you find your way to your destination.

Disappointingly, though, these indoor AR directions aren’t being rolled out very widely yet: they’re only available in some malls in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle right now. Google will launch indoor Live View directions in select transit stations, airports, and malls in Tokyo and Zurich in the coming months, however, and more cities are “on the way.”

Other features Google Maps showed off today that will be available in coming months include the ability to see the weather or air quality as you plan a trip within the app. Later this year, the app will also show users the most eco-conscious driving route, by default, if a route that uses less fuel (which will be determined by considering factors such as road incline and traffic density) is estimated to be about as fast as another route. Google said it's working with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the feature.

"By and large what we're seeing in our work so far is that for around half of routes we're able to find an option that's more eco-friendly with minimal or no time cost tradeoff," Russell Dicker, a Google Maps director of product, said.

The fuel-efficient routes aren’t the only eco-friendly updates for Maps: Google also plans to introduce alerts that will tell you when you’ll be navigating through low-emissions zones, which don’t allow some vehicles with certain levels of emissions to enter. Google says these alerts will launch in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK on Android and iOS this June. More countries will get the alerts soon, according to Google.

Additionally, using photogrammetry, the same technology that also allows Microsoft’s Flight Simulator to render large swaths of the world in detail, Google is also building a model of the world for its Maps service.

“We’re going to continue to improve that technology that helps us fuse together the billions of aerials, StreetView and satellite images that we have to really help us move from that flat 2D map to a more accurate 3D model than we’ve ever had. And be able to do that more quickly. And to bring more detail to it than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Dane Glasgow, Google’s VP for Geo Product Experience, said in a press event ahead of today’s announcement.

He noted that this 3D layer will allow the company to visualise all its data in new and interesting ways.

How exactly this will play out in reality remains to be seen, but Glasgow showed off a new 3D route preview, for example, with all of the typically mapping data overlayed on top of the 3D map.

Glasgow also noted that this technology will allow Google to parse out small features like stoplights and building addresses, which in turn will result in better directions.

“We also think that the 3D imagery will allow us to visualise a lot of new information and data overlaid on top, you know, everything from helpful information like traffic or accidents, transit delays, crowdedness - there’s lots of potential here to bring new information,” he explained.

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