By Jenni Bergal
They are a torment for motorists and a costly headache for transportation departments. Every winter and spring, potholes plague city streets and rural roads, causing drivers to curse and public works officials to shudder.
That’s why some local governments are turning to data and technology to find and fix potholes. Some are even trying to predict where they’ll open up.
In a growing number of cities, including Omaha, Nebraska; Hartford, Connecticut; and San Diego, residents can download an app for reporting potholes. In Houston, residents can check out the Pothole Tracker app or log on to a website and see graphics and charts showing the city’s progress in fixing them.
And emerging technologies and data analytics are taking the fight against potholes to a new level. In Syracuse, New York, officials are using data that will track and visualize trends around potholes. And a Kansas City, Missouri, pilot project is using algorithms to try to predict where potholes will show up.
Even companies such as Google and Microsoft have created apps that people can use in their cars that try to detect potholes and alert drivers about damaged roads.
“Potholes are a huge problem. The federal government may screw around and not pass a budget and guys will bitch about it on CNN,” said Bob Bennett, Kansas City’s chief innovation officer. “But if we fail to fill the potholes or pick up the trash, we’re going to hear about it. Potholes are one of those things people kvetch about.”
No one knows how many potholes are out there, but everyone agrees there are lots of them, especially in areas that have repeated temperature swings below and above the freezing point.
American drivers pay an estimated $3 billion a year to repair damage caused by potholes, according to AAA. Over a five-year period, 16 million drivers reported their vehicles were damaged by potholes, from tire punctures and bent wheels to suspension damage.
Repair bills for motorists can range from under $250 to more than $1,000, said Michael Calkins, AAA’s manager of technical services.
And vehicle damage isn’t the only threat motorists face.
“There’s a potential to lose control of the car,” Calkins said. “If it’s a big enough pothole and you’re going fast enough, you could have the steering wheel jerked out of your hands and end up hitting another car.”
Potholes form when moisture collects in small holes and cracks in an asphalt road surface and seeps into its lower layers.
As temperatures fluctuate, the moisture freezes and thaws, expanding and contracting, which weakens the roadway and cracks the pavement. With the weight of cars and trucks, the road surface becomes increasingly damaged and eventually breaks apart, resulting in a pothole.
“The bigger potholes get, the faster they grow,” Calkins said. “If you can catch it while it’s small the repair is easier and the potential for it to grow and the risk of damage to vehicles is reduced.”
Although potholes sometimes form on major highways, most appear on city streets and rural roads, which are built to less stringent standards with thinner surfaces.
“Potholes are definitely a local government problem,” said Omar Smadi, director of the Center for Transportation Research and Education at Iowa State University. “They will impact the quality of driving. Your tire is going to drop in it; water is going to collect in it. If the local government doesn’t take care of it, the problem is just going to get worse.”
Some cities are tackling the craters by using technology to find, track and fix them or figure out where they’re going to appear.
In Syracuse, city trucks that fill potholes carry GPS units that pull data every time they spray asphalt into one. Instead of workers filling out forms, the data is automatically logged, showing the date, time and location every pothole is filled, said Sam Edelstein, the city’s chief data officer.
The city, which started collecting the data in 2016, publishes the information online, showing where and when potholes have been filled.
“We are trying to limit the number of times we’re revisiting a street,” Edelstein said. “If they’ve been on a block three times in the last two months, why is that? Is there some underlying condition? Is there something wrong with the fill not lasting?”
The data also may show that a quick fix isn’t the answer; that the road needs to be repaved.
“The idea is to have a more holistic view of our infrastructure and say this street is the most at need for a longer-term repair,” Edelstein said.
Other local governments also are trying to think ahead. More than 40 of them, from San Joaquin County, California, to Quincy, Massachusetts, contract with a Pittsburgh software company that uses smartphone cameras and algorithms to create color-coded maps of road networks that show not only potholes but the cracks and fissures where they might develop.
The company, RoadBotics, sends out drivers with the phones placed on windshields. Drivers turn on an app that collects video from every street and sends the data to the cloud. The company, which charges $75 a mile, then uses artificial intelligence to analyze the road surface the same way a trained pavement engineer would, CEO Mark DeSantis said.
“This saves time and effort of having to send people out and inspect the roadways,” DeSantis said. “Staring at mile after mile of pavement is difficult, it’s tedious, and in some cases, it’s dangerous.”
Kansas City has gone even further. Its project combines details from weather data, traffic volume and pavement conditions to predict where potholes are most likely to appear.
The city would rather save money in the long run by making long-term repairs to likely pothole hotspots than wait to patch them after they’ve become a problem, said Bennett, the chief innovation officer.
“We can go in where we know a road has got extra stress and put in sealant that keeps it from potholing,” Bennett said, adding that it also will reduce the amount of overtime needed to pay workers after hours in a pothole emergency.
So far, the program appears to be a success, Bennett said. Despite the bad winter, the public has reported fewer potholes this spring than last year. But officials won’t know for sure until later in the year, he said.
Transportation experts say regardless of how sophisticated the technology is or how many potholes the workers fix, the bottom line is that many U.S. streets are old and in poor condition and need to be rehabbed and rebuilt.
“It’s an issue of dollars available,” AAA’s Calkins said. “A good proportion of America’s roads need resurfacing, but transportation departments simply don’t have the funding to do that.”