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Posted on February 3rd, 2015

Outside the Box – Making Use of Potholes

I was back in my native Illinois for the holidays and I was overwhelmed by the number of potholes on all the city streets. Sure, the state has been hemorrhaging money forever, so there likely isn’t enough cash to go around to attend to minor infrastructure issues, but as we drove around I just couldn’t help but cringe at the damage the potholes must inflict on cars, shocks, struts, tires, wheels and gas mileage to boot. But I also thought there must be a high degree of energy transmission between the give and take of the automobile and the porous road, and wondered how that energy could be harnessed.

This pothole at Archbald Pothole State Park in Pennsylvania would ruin any driver’s day. 50-cm color image captured March 15, 2012 by WV-2 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

Well, I’m no genius, if you’ve read this series before, you know that. So of course people have been thinking about this idea for years. Graduate students from M.I.T. helped create a shock, called GenShock, several years ago that not only helps to smooth a ride but can also partially power a car. The school partnered with Levant Power Corporation and the prototypes were used in military vehicles. Their test runs yielded a 3-10% bump in fuel efficiency in vehicles that initially averaged 40 mpg.

Potholes are notoriously hard on vehicles. When a car strikes one, it causes it to move both vertically and horizontally, thus resulting in a loss of energy from the original forward trajectory. Aside from that, the devil’s holes can wreak havoc in other ways. Harsh winter weather leads to the use of heavy machinery with plows and abrasive materials used to fight ice; all of which drastically effect road conditions and stimulate road damage, leading to potholes. In the especially hard winter of 2014, Time magazine reported that there were 1,100 claims in one week alone in Chicago for damage to vehicles from the potholes. Citizen drivers have the right to file these claims across the country, but mostly they are rejected. It is noted that municipalities are responsible for the upkeep of the roads, so maybe there should be more impetus put on how money is spent for repairs and pothole prevention. I imagine the estimates for lost earnings and unnecessary expenses due to vehicular damage are astounding.

Chicago itself has a policy of paying up to $2,000 per claim, but not more than half. It is written that the driver bears some responsibility in avoiding the potholes to begin with. In 2013, Chicago paid off 754 claims at an average of $240 per claimant, making the city look generous compared to other locales such as Colorado Springs, Colorado who rejected 98%. When you think of all the infrastructure issues in this country we now face, it bodes that potholes would be lowest on the list of priorities.

And while the technology for shocks and struts that can absorb impact and transfer energy are up and running, though far from perfect and widely available, it gives us hope for yielding gains from these pesky bumps in the road. For now, steer clear; as if we need one more thing to look out for in our fast-paced lives.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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