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Making Potholes History

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Potholes matter to voters - Here’s how technology can eradicate them by 2023

Executive Summary

· Potholes and the poor state of Britain’s Roads are a growing problem for voters.

· Fortunately, new technologies should mean that potholes can be found and fixed cheaply within 24 hours. The technology is already here. For example road-scanning technology on autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles could automatically photograph potholes and beam the location back to the relevant authority in real-time.

· Fixing potholes quickly would save government money, reduce accidents and reduce damage to cars.

· Voters want the problem fixed. Doing so helps motorists, cyclists, local authorities and motor insurers.

Potholes Matter

Voters are getting more and more furious over the state of the roads. So important is the issue that it is now starting to swing bi-elections. Door canvassers in Chesham & Amersham and Batley & Spen, have found potholes to be the one of voters’ major concerns[1] – something the Liberal Democrats successfully exploited.

For most politicians, this is one matter they would rather be rid of: It isn’t one of those big or global issues that requires some principled stance or national movement. However, for voters, there are good reasons why potholes matter:

· Research by Kwik-Fit puts the cost to motorists of repairing pothole damage to their vehicles at £1.25 billion a year. One in five mechanical failures in cars on UK roads is caused by them.[2]

· The RAC reported that between April and June of 2020 there were 1,766 pothole-related accidents. Between January and March 2021 of 4,694 of its call outs, a twentieth of the total, were related to pot-hole damage.[3]

· For cyclists, potholes are an even bigger danger. According to Cycling UK, 15% of cyclists involved in an accident report the cause to be some form of road defect. Cycling UK even runs a campaign called ‘Fill that Hole.’[4]

The Sorry State of Britain’s Roads

· Last year, one million fewer potholes were fixed than in 2014-15, and 16% of council maintained roads were reportedly in a poor state.[5]

· According to the RAC, Drivers are now 1.5 times more likely to suffer a pothole breakdown than in 2006.[6]

· According to a survey by the AA, 88% of drivers say that roads are in a worse condition now compared to 10 years ago. 67% say that roads have ‘considerably deteriorated’ over the last decade.[7]

Technology to the Rescue

Road Scanning Technology

When it comes to potholes, one of the big problems for councils is finding them, and finding them quickly. The longer potholes are left, the bigger they get, the more dangerous they become, and the more expensive they are to fix. Finding and repairing potholes rapidly would save councils money, save motorists money AND reduce road accidents.

The familiar process of potholes taking weeks to be reported should be a thing of the past. Without realising it, millions of motorists’ vehicles are already scanning the road every second. Our cars know exactly where the potholes are, they just need to tell the council.

The first way to do this would be to tweak the telematics and on-dash cameras insurers already place in millions of our vehicles. They could identify dangers like potholes or fallen rocks, and instantly beam a photograph and GPS co-ordinates straight back to the Highways Agency or local authority responsible.

Another way is for semi-autonomous vehicles (already out there) and autonomous vehicles (widespread trials ongoing with the government) to utilise the road-scanning technology they are using anyway. Technologies such as LiDAR scans the road hundreds of times a second. The information is then fed to the cars’ on-board computer and processed in a fraction of a second, adjusting the individual suspension at each wheel. Again, all you need to do is tweak the algorithm to simultaneously report any pothole or obstruction that it detects back to the local authority. Cost is no longer a constraint: LiDAR devices are now down to $100 and the size of a fag packet[8].

And the government has a natural partner that would love to help fix potholes: The insurance industry. Potholes cost the insurance industry millions of claims and billions of pounds a year.

Companies like Direct Line are already working closely with the autonomous vehicles industry, and have been putting telematics devices in our cars for well over a decade.

For years, government has been working closely with the motor insurance industry through the ABI, on a range of issues (Whiplash reforms, Ogden rate, refunds during lockdowns, etc). This would be just another mutually beneficial collaboration.

Repair Technologies.

If you can find potholes easily, the only issue is getting them filled quickly.

Fortunately there is real progress here, with a growing array of cheaper and quicker alternatives to asphalt, including recycled plastic and recycled road materials.

Furthermore, even the machinery is getting better. For example, several councils are now trialling a new machine from JCB that can fill potholes in less than eight minutes and at half the cost.[9]

A Stitch in Time

Repairing potholes is an issue where upfront spending creates real financial savings. If left unmended, potholes grow - meaning more accidents and a bigger, more costly and disruptive repair job later on.

Thus, as well as embracing new technology to find and fix, it makes sense to allocate a chunk of the ‘Build Back Better’ stimulus programme to get on top of the issue, and avoid a bigger bill in future. This would require a change, as the current proposals do not mention potholes.[10] That would go a long way to fulfilling the Conservative Party’s 2020 manifesto pledge to ‘Launch the biggest ever pothole-filling programme as part of our National Infrastructure Strategy.’

The Right Fix at the Right Time

Having an accurate map of an area’s potholes would allow authorities to schedule the work in the most efficient way, managing the issue rather than reacting.

Crucially, knowing the size, depth and location of potholes in advance would also ensure the right treatment was used to fill them in. A big problem is that often large or deep potholes where there is subsidence are just filled over, so the problem just re-occurs a few months later.

Who Benefits?

· Motorists AND Cyclists – Safer roads and fewer accidents.

· Councils and the Highways Agency – getting potholes reported and repaired quickly saves money and resources.

· Motor insurers – thanks to falling accidents and falling claims.

· Councillors and MPs – who can focus on chasing up the many other important matters. It would also demonstrate that all that door-canvassing was not in vain, and that MPs really can listen to locals.

Taking it Further

Competition and benchmarking:

Widespread use of road-scanning technology would give us a good picture of Britain’s roads, right down to the local level. We could see in real time who was doing a good job on maintenance and who was not; who is quick to fix things and who is slow. We can then apply the best practice of the leaders to bring the laggards up to scratch.

A more radical idea would be to outsource minor road maintenance to the motor insurance industry. Rather than using council tax, pothole repairs and the like would be paid for with motor insurance. Motor insurers have every incentive to keep roads in a good state and to get them repaired quickly and safely. There is also a financial incentive to do this as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

Making Potholes History
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