To Combat a $3B Pothole Problem, Cities Turn to High-Tech Solutions

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From data tracking to AI and robotic pothole repair arms, cities look for ways to speed and improve pothole repair, and also reduce the cost of dealing with this transportation headache.

While it could be argued that humans are at the very pinnacle of technological achievement, with space exploration, artificial intelligence and robotics all making giant bounds of progress, we still, rather banally, have a pothole problem.

Indeed, car insurance firm AAA estimates that American drivers pay approximately $3 billion a year to fix car damage caused by potholes. They tend to spring up more frequently in places with wider temperature fluctuations, with moisture pooling in small holes and cracks in asphalt – freezing and expanding in the cold and then melting and contracting, leaving cracks and instability in the road’s surface.

Can the pothole problem be better solved? Some believe so, with increasing numbers of local councils looking to apps and data tracking to hack their way to smoother roads.

A plethora of cities are providing technological ways for residents to report potholes, track data around potholes, run predictive analytics around potholes and, perhaps most satisfactorily for the concerned citizen, showing updates on the progress of those being fixed.

The City of Houston, for example, implemented a pothole repair initiative in 2016 with the goal of addressing and filling citizen-reported potholes in 24 hours. The initiative, which encourages citizens to report a suspected pothole through a 311-Helpline or app, has resulted in over 6,000 potholes reported by citizens. As of year-to-date 2018,  99.73% of citizen-reported potholes were filled by next business day.

Tech Behemoths like Microsoft and Google are also getting in on the game, adding reporting functions to their mapping software, and notifications on their driving apps to alert commuters before they inadvertently drive into one.

Reporting software isn’t always a blessing though, according to Tom Keenan, professor of computer science and environmental design at the University of Calgary and author of Techno Creep.

“We’ve all had the frustrating feeling of complaining about something like a pothole and getting either a mechanical or no reply, and, worse, no action,” said Keenan, who grew up in the Bronx where he says, “Potholes were just a part of life.”

While problem reporting apps like SeeClickFix can make cities accountable by allowing the complainer to track the progress (or lack thereof) of their complaint, they can also be used to bully and harass individuals or businesses by making false or exaggerated reports about them, he said.

“My favorite example is a guy who hates the car wash in his neighborhood and is continually having city staff come out to harass them.” Keenan says issues can also arise when people don’t realize that their post is not anonymous and that their exact location can be traced from their IP address.

That said, Keenan admits there is “a social good” to reporting problems and that things like the upper east side NYC disaster “might have been averted if somebody had reported sketchy gas line connections.”

The apps, Keenan said, are a good way to answer calls for increased local government transparency from taxpayers, as well as a sincere desire for innovation, though some part of it is also motivated by fear. “Wikileaks is going to get this anyway; it looks better if we release it,” explained Keenan.

It’s also cheap, especially when done in open-source software.

While reporting potholes is all well and good, fixing them is better, and here too tech may have an interesting role to play.

In Syracuse, New York, the city sends GPS-equipped pothole-filling trucks around, automatically logging the date, time and location of every pothole being filled, and displaying the information publicly online. If a road is consistently getting potholes, the information can help persuade authorities to resurface it entirely.

Other cities are using software from firms like RoadBotics which plugs data from smartphone cameras into its algorithms to make attractive color-coded maps of local roads to show hazards like potholes and cracks. Crowdsourcing the data this way is not just cost-efficient at $75 a mile, but also provides the same level of analysis as a trained pavement engineer.

A Turkish architecture and technology firm called Dahir Insaat has an even more creative solution. The firm has a blueprint for a truck equipped with sensors and robots controlled by Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to drive around cutting potholes out of the road in neat squares, vacuuming up the debris and then plugging it with a ready-made plug of exactly the right size. The plugs are made from crushed granite and tar and are stored “chilled”. Once fitted, the plug warms up and expands to fill every millimeter of the hole it was placed into.

Dakhir Semenov, an engineer at the firm said his team was primarily interested in the technology and the engineering side of the pothole problem, which motivated them to attempt to solve it.

“We wanted to build a vehicle that could fix the road surface in one or two minutes,” he said, noting that the truck his team designed can use a variety of different tools, from saws to vacuums to robots.

“The main issues are price and durability. If the repair will cost more than regular pothole repair it won’t be of interest, so we’ve put a lot of thought into the choices of tools and speed of work,” he said. The company believes the costs of its truck plugging system would be much lower than patching work. With 10 trucks driving around plugging potholes, the firm believes an entire megalopolis could be well-serviced, performing 500 or more repairs every single day.

The company doesn’t yet have a working prototype, as funding is still an issue. “If we had funding, we’d be ready to start building the vehicle tomorrow,” he said, noting that it would likely take about a year to get the truck up and running and fixing preliminary potholes around town.

For the truck to become a fully-fledged industrial product for sale in multiple markets might require a bit longer, admitted Semenov, who is also slightly skeptical that local governments would even take much of an interest. “Those people live in a different world, in the world of PR and window dressings,” he said adding, “[In Turkey] tens of billions of dollars are being stolen annually under the guise of road repair, so no one in government is actually all that interested in actually fixing the roads.”

The pothole reporting efforts underway in North America would suggest things are more optimistic this side of the world, but whether local governments can make the leap between pot-hole and timely pot-hole-fix remains to be seen.

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