Fixing the Pothole Problem

Fixing the Pothole Problem
New technologies and materials aim to make potholes and pockmarked roads a thing of the past.

The worldwide pothole epidemic has prompted some interesting responses. In Moline, Illinois, the city urges motorists to report the location and size of the menacing ruts, dispatching road crews to fix them and offering $50 to the person who reports the largest one. In Hyderabad, in southern India, Pothole Man has gained international celebrity by assembling a volunteer army of pothole-fillers. The retired 66-year-old railroad worker (real name: Gangadhara Tilak Katnam) says the undertaking is an answer to Mahatma Gandhi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Amusing though these anecdotes may be, they do point to a serious issue. In Great Britain the proliferation of potholes reportedly led to the serious injury or death of more than 3,400 cyclists between August 2014 and August 2015, a one-third increase since the mid-2000s. Potholes are also taking an economic toll on United States motorists, who reportedly shell out $6.4 billion annually for pothole repairs by road crews. Meanwhile, urban drivers pay $300 to $600 a year—for a total of $94 billion—to fix rough-road damage to their vehicles.

Innovations to stabilize road surfaces to prolong their integrity—and thereby reduce maintenance costs—are emerging at a faster rate than ever before. Some of the newcomers are already in use while others are still in development.

A pioneering product in the category, DuPont™​ Elvaloy®, increases surface durability in extreme conditions. It can be blended into paving materials to help roads stand up to fuel spills (an airport runway in the Czech Republic), big changes in temperature and altitude (a road through the Andes, in Peru, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans), and heavy loads (the roads near a rock quarry in Texas).

To combat potholes on the municipal level in the United States, infrared systems are being deployed with greater frequency. Roving trucks operated by a two-person crew lower an 8-by-6-foot heating unit onto the damaged road surface. When the asphalt is pliable, at about 325 degrees Fahrenheit, the crew adds more heated asphalt as necessary from a storage unit on the truck, and then levels and compacts the patch. The process takes as little as 20.

Google has patented technology that detects potholes and maps them via instantaneous satellite uplink. The idea is that the information will be used in automotive GPS systems to steer motorists away from pothole territory and onto smoother roads. The mapping could also facilitate more efficient road repair, by identifying the areas in need of the greatest attention.

Meanwhile, some upscale vehicles, such as Range Rovers, already have systems that automatically adjust the suspension in response to a rough ride. The parent company, Jaguar Land Rover, has added cloud-connectivity to the mix, a la Google’s project, and is also developing highly reactive sensors that would automatically guide a vehicle around potholes.

Using technology to avoid potholes is clever, but it doesn’t obviate the need to fix or prevent them. Here are a few notable efforts to achieve that:

  • Fuel spills can dissolve the ‘glue’ (often asphalt) that binds pieces of paving materials, like stone or gravel, together. This leaves stones exposed and wheels begin to break apart the surface, causing potholes. At the DuPont Global Paving Center in Prague, scientists receive samples of asphalt from around the world and blend in polymers to help roads resist degradation by fuel.
  • Engineers at the University of Cambridge, in England, have developed a sodium silicate–based mending agent that fills fissures and binds together fractured pavement. Packed into plastic capsules that are added to asphalt, the substance activates when air and water enters through cracks in the road surface.
  • At England’s University of Bath, scientists are employing a similar idea, but instead using bacteria and nutrients as a road-surface additive. When exposed to water the bacteria produce crack-filling calcium compounds.
  • In July, the Netherlands-based engineering firm VolkerWessels revealed its PlasticRoad system. Roads are built from prefabricated section made entirely from recycled plastics (bottles, bags, you name it). Placed on a substrate of sand or gravel, the PlasticRoad is hollow, allowing for the placement of conduits for utilities, storm water, and fiber-optic cables. Company officials have said they hope to begin installing the PlasticRoad within three years.

Whether you’re an investor, commuter, or parent dropping a kid off at school, it appears that you’re in for a smoother ride, even if it’s down the road a bit.

Pothole Quiz

If you think a pothole is just another hole in the ground, you might want to guess again. Test your pothole knowledge.

1. What is the primary cause of a pothole?

a) A gouge or scar in the road.
b) Roadbed expansion and contraction, which allows water to infiltrate.
c) Heavy traffic.
d) Erosion by oil and fuel leakage.

2. The word pothole did not originate to describe road blemishes. In which of the following locations do potholes form?

a) Riverbeds.
b) Glaciers.
c) Peat bogs.
d) All of the above.

3. Which two of the following asphalt additives are not considered pothole retardants?

a) Pig manure.
b) Recycled rubber tires.
c) Chocolate.
d) Recycled glass.

4. If potholes have been around for as long as asphalt has been used to pave roads, the earliest potholes formed when and where?

a) Sometime after 1830, when an asphalt road was laid down in front of city hall in Newark, N.J.
b) Circa 800 BC, when asphalt was used to line a tunnel beneath the Euphrates in Babylon.
c) In the 1870s, when the high-wheel bicycle, or penny-farthing, came into wide use in England and France, and required smooth asphalt surfaces for riding.
d) On August 19, 1909, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its first automobile race.

5. Which city currently holds the dubious distinction of having the most potholes in the United States?

a) Los Angeles, CA
b) Tucson, AZ
c) New Orleans, LA
d) Honolulu, HI


Answers: 1. b; 2. d; 3. c and d; 4. a; 5. a.