Urban Air Quality: The ‘tobacco’ of our generation

Matthew Pencharz looks at the evolving battle to improve Air Quality


Urban air quality has become the “new tobacco” – so said the World Health Organisation’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and that simply breathing is killing the equivalent of 7 million people a year. The World Bank estimated in 2016 that the economic burden through lives lost, ill health and reduced productivity is an astonishing $5 trillion annually. In recent years our understanding of the impacts of air pollution has rapidly improved. Health impacts fall most heavily on children, whose lung capacity can be reduced permanently by 10 per cent through growing up in polluted areas. This improved understanding has driven air quality to be one of the top environmental concerns in urban areas.


City Mayors are working hard – often competing with each other in developing the toughest measures – to improve their cities’ air quality. Some are bringing in blanket restrictions for diesel vehicles over just five years old, others are proposing banning diesel and even creating zero emission zones in the next half decade or so. The most forward-looking of the city leaders are adding intelligent digital solutions to their toolbox to tackle air pollution.


With the average age of cars in the EU being around 11 years and the life of the heaviest and most polluting vehicles being somewhat longer, relying solely on policy changes is going to take some time. Much like the fight against smoking, the battle to improve urban air quality will be a generational struggle.


At the same time, people’s travel choices are rapidly changing. The numbers of younger people acquiring a driving licence are rapidly declining – by an astonishing 40 per cent in the UK compared to their 1990s contemporaries. There are a number of reasons: the increase in insurance costs for younger people being one, but also the creation of highly innovative digital platforms, such as Uber and Lyft. It has become easier to choose not to own a rapidly depreciating asset which is utilised less than 5 per cent of the time, but rather consider mobility as a service (MaaS) – especially in urban areas.


If utilised correctly technology can harness this societal change and, instead of increasing congestion and pollution, can help to reduce it. Technology and wider Smart City IoT solutions can be used to improve urban air quality far faster than waiting for natural turnover of commercial vehicle fleets, the take-up of zero emission drivetrains and their required recharging infrastructure, or the introduction of city vehicle restriction schemes which inevitably take years to decide, design and implement.


Tantalum’s Air.Car delivers a suite of products and services that looks to rapidly improve urban air quality and residents’ exposure to pollution. Working with the UK’s leading engineering university, Imperial College London, Air.Car has developed machine learning AI that calculates vehicle tailpipe emissions in real-time. When this dataset is added to real-time traffic congestion, weather and air quality, cities have a powerful new tool to optimise city operations and MaaS users have new insights in how to minimise their exposure to toxic air.


Air.Car aims to be the urban traveller’s routing partner – guiding them to avoid air pollution black spots while ensuring there is no net increase in emissions related to that journey. If the user chooses to walk or cycle, a clean route will be recommended and if they choose a paid-for service Air.Car connects the traveller with transport providers – such as ride hailing service, bus or train. The tips and insights capability of Air.Car advises urban travellers to choose the cleanest route depending on who they are with, for example children or those sensitive to air pollution, with one click on the App and payments settled through Tantalum’s Pay.Car platform, powered by SAP.


SAP and Air.Car are proud to be partners at Barcelona’s Smart City Expo World Congress 2018 from November 13-15. Come see us and learn more about Air.Car’s power to support Low Emission Zone schemes with dynamic charging for clean neighbourhoods and SAP’s power to make our cities of the future cleaner and more liveable. We can be found in Hall 2, Level 0, Street C, Stand 349.