Can the Proverbial Pothole Problem be Disrupted?: NMA E-Newsletter #493

Nothing worse than hitting a pothole you can’t avoid on the road. Not only is it jarring and disruptive to your driving but it can also damage your car. AAA reports that American drivers pay an estimated $3 billion per year to repair cars damaged by potholes.

AAA Manager of Technical Services Michael Calkins said repair bills can range from $250 to more than $1000 for anything from tire punctures to bent wheels and suspension damage. He also says vehicle damage is not the only threat that motorists face when dealing with a pothole. “There’s a potential to lose control of your car. 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.”

Cities also struggle with the relentless onslaught of these neverending holes in the road. Collectively, potholes can be expensive to fix. Michigan DOT has a nice graphic on how potholes are formed called THE BIRTH OF A POTHOLE.

In March, the Pittsburgh City Council agreed to shift more than $720,000 to the streets budget. Due to the freeze/thaw cycle over the winter, 3,700 potholes were reported. The city’s resurfacing budget for the year was already just over $16 million with repaving work to be completed for 67 miles of streets.

In early June, Governor Tom Wolf made a tour of bad roads and ended up in Pittsburgh to announce that the state Department of Transportation would provide an additional $23 million for local governments to make pothole repairs across the state by the end of June. The thaw-freeze cycle was so bad this past winter that PennDOT District Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni said her workers have already used 5,000 tons of patching material for three counties. Last year, they only used 1,300 tons for the entire year.

In the near future, potholes might just meet their match with new technologies currently in development.

Road Sensor Technology

A University of NY-Buffalo joint venture with China’s Chang’an University is working on the ePave project, a network of self-powered wireless sensors which can provide city officials updates in real-time. Laying under the road surfaces, the sensors would harness piezoelectricity (powered garnered from the mechanical stress vehicles put on the roads) to monitor road conditions, the formation of potholes and other kinds of road breaks. This technology is in early-stage development.

Decision Tree Tool

University of Minnesota Duluth’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering has researched all different kinds of potholes and the different repair methods on how to best patch them. Researchers said in a recent report that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work and have put together a decision tree tool that can help DOT road crews match the best patching method to the pothole.

Reporting a Pothole

Many cities and state DOTs have pothole hotlines and now in some cities there’s an app for reporting a local pothole. Drivers in Omaha, Nebraska; Hartford, Connecticut; and San Diego, California can download and report to their city government. Houston actually has a Pothole Tracker app with a website that allows drivers to track the city’s progress in fixing a pothole. Google and Microsoft have also created apps that drivers use in their cars to detect potholes and alert other drivers.

Road Mapping, Predictive Analysis and Big Data

RoadBiotics works with 40 local governments by sending out drivers with phones placed on their windshields. An app is used to collect street video which is uploaded to the cloud. The company then uses artificial intelligence to analyze road surface and reports back findings to the city.

Kansas City uses predictive algorithms to determine where and when a pothole might occur. The project combines weather data, traffic volume and pavement conditions.

Syracuse, New York officials use data that track and visualize trends around potholes. Road crews use trucks with GPS that automatically log the data showing date, time and location the pothole was filled. Sam Edelstein, the city’s chief data officer said that Syracuse is trying to limit the number of times that crews are visiting a street. He added, “If they’ve been on a block three times in the last two months, why is that? Is there an underlying condition? Is there something wrong with the fill not lasting?” The data may show that a quick fix does not work and the road needs to be repaved.


Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK say they are working a new technology that uses drones to search for and patch potholes. Their hope is that all the work would be done at night with one drone finding the problem and the second drone using 3D printing technology to patch the hole. Two big issues the researchers have not been able to tackle after three years of research—how a drone can transport the heavy material needed to patch the road and how a 3D printer could actually print the asphalt plug. Other than that, it is a good solution.

Fixing Roads for Pizza

Domino’s Pizza started this year a Paving for Pizza program. Domino drivers rack up 12 million miles each week delivering pizzas in the US and came up with a way to protect their pizzas and help other drivers.

The company’s national headquarters has dispensed grants of up to $5,000 to 20 locations across the US to help fill potholes and repair cracked roads. Milford, Delaware City Manager Eric Norenberg said that the $5000 grant allowed three city employees to work full-time for six weeks doing nothing but fixing potholes. Milford, population 10,000, only has $30,000 to cover street repairs the entire year.

Dominos brands each pothole by spray painting their logo on each hole fixed, plus can contract with each city to brand the road crew truck and the cones used to stop traffic. The company hopes that other companies will get on the bandwagon to help fix potholes.

Perhaps this is not the kind of corporate investment for infrastructure that the country has been discussing, but why not? That’s the kind of public-private partnership we can get behind.

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