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Mapping Potholes by Phone (the West Bank’s Roads Were Smoother)

Mapping Potholes by Phone (the West Bank’s Roads Were Smoother)

A far-flung group of engineering students, from schools like M.I.T., Harvard and Birzeit University in the West Bank, have developed an app that turns a smartphone into a tool to track potholes and measure overall road quality.

No one needs an app to confirm hitting a pothole, but this project could improve life in many ways for drivers — and everyone else.

The students’ test users have already come up with some surprising data (or not so surprising for those familiar with Boston-area streets): The roads around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are worse than the roads around Birzeit University.

“The surface streets in Cambridge have the roughness index of a well-maintained dirt road,” said Franz-Josef Ulm, faculty director at M.I.T.’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, who is guiding the students in developing their app, called Carbin.

Poor road quality increases fuel consumption, Professor Ulm said. That was on his mind a couple of years ago during an educational exchange visit to Birzeit University, one of the top engineering schools in the Middle East. Fuel is expensive there, and for some Palestinians, transportation costs rival those of rent and food. He realized that if there was a way to map road quality, drivers could plan trips that cost less and reduced wear and tear on their cars.

Although drivers don’t realize it, they compensate for poor roads by pressing a little harder on the accelerator. So to maintain a constant speed, they burn more fuel and spew out more carbon dioxide. The quality of highways has a small effect on fuel consumption, but Professor Ulm said road quality could account for 10 to 15 percent of fuel use in urban settings.

Another motivation for the app? “We were frustrated trying to get road-quality data from the government,” Professor Ulm recalled.

Engineers rate road quality using a World Bank metric, the International Roughness Index, which ideally is measured by special vans equipped with lasers to scan the road. They can cost up to $700,000.

At that price, only state transportation departments can afford them, and they usually measure only major highways. American cities (and Ramallah, near Birzeit University, for that matter) rely mostly on citizen complaints or seat-of-the-pants assessments by city employees.

That unscientific approach presents problems, said Glenn Engstrom, the director of the National Road Research Alliance, which conducts pavement research at MnROAD, the Minnesota transportation department’s asphalt test track.

“People are far more tolerant of bad roads in urban settings, because speeds are lower,” Mr. Engstrom said. He noted that apps like Carbin could be particularly helpful in cities because those expensive vans don’t work as well in stop-and-go traffic (or in freezing weather, a.k.a. pothole season).

Accurate data is better than citizen complaints for road maintenance. The time to resurface roads is when the roughness index starts to climb, even before drivers report problems.

“Smooth roads last longer,” Mr. Engstrom said, “and that definitely helps both the environment and our pocketbook.”

Upon his return from the West Bank, Professor Ulm bemoaned the lack of roughness-index data on those roads to another engineering professor, Arghavan Louhghalam of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. It occurred to her that the accelerometers built into smartphones might be able to measure road roughness.

From that initial conversation, they assembled a group of five faculty supervisors from M.I.T., UMass Dartmouth and Birzeit University. Six students from M.I.T., Birzeit, Harvard, UMass Dartmouth and the University of Washington then went to work under Jacob Roxon, a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T.

The code for the initial Carbin iPhone app was written by Shahd Nara, now a Harvard senior studying computer science. Android phones are far more common than iPhones in the West Bank, and Carbin’s Android app was developed by Bader Anini, who is in his final year of computer systems engineering at Birzeit.

Carbin works best if the smartphone is attached to the vehicle in a phone holder, but it works fairly well even if the phone is simply laid flat on the car floor. One obvious challenge is that the phone detects all movements, whether they are caused by the road, driver behavior or the car itself.

Isolating the movement caused by a bumpy road takes some sophisticated math, but in the end, Carbin’s estimates of road quality compare favorably with the measurements taken with those laser-equipped vans.

Ms. Nara is also the developer and designer of Carbin’s website, FixMyRoad.us, where data from hundreds of Carbin beta testers has already been collected and mapped. As of this writing, about 1,000 people have downloaded the app. About 300 regular users have uploaded data from over 3,000 trips, mapping the quality of over 175,000 miles of roads in 11 countries.

More and more cities and states have committed to meeting the terms of the Paris climate agreement, whether the United States government is a signatory or not. Data gathered by Carbin users and uploaded to FixMyRoad.us already offers a new argument for improved road-maintenance budgets: reducing carbon emissions.

The student team is now working on a version of Carbin that would suggest the greenest driving routes.

Eventually, Carbin could be incorporated into navigation software like Waze or Apple Maps. But the next big step isn’t technical, it’s commercial; most of the students will graduate this spring, and their goal is to turn their class project into a start-up.

Some navigation apps already offer an “eco” option based on distance and average fuel consumption. Using Carbin, apps could factor in additional variables including road conditions, topography, predicted idling time and even individual users’ vehicles and driving styles.

Carbin “has the potential to offer eco-routing for your particular car,” Professor Ulm said. “If you have a choice of 10 pounds of CO2 or seven pounds of CO2, you may want to consider it in a time of global warming.”

Reducing carbon pollution is good for everyone over the long haul. But the students are thinking hard about large fleet customers like UPS and FedEx, as well as Uber and Lyft. Improved eco-routing also promises those users an immediate fuel savings and lower maintenance costs over time.

Those commercial benefits are top of mind right now as the students aim to turn Carbin into a business. Mr. Roxon will manage Carbin’s transition from a student project to a commercial venture over the next few months.

“This technology is proven,” Professor Ulm said. “It just needs to be scaled.”

After making many exchange trips to Birzeit University, Professor Ulm has watched talented young engineers graduate and then decamp to Persian Gulf states for jobs. He hopes that Carbin will keep some of them home.

“If we can create lasting jobs right in the West Bank,” he said, “I will retire happy.” For the students who created Carbin, that’s just the beginning.


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