Carmakers to Potholes: Bring It On

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There are two ways to attack the pothole problem. One is to fix the potholes. The other is to drive a car that is tougher than any chuckhole that comes its way.

With current technology and resources, neither is 100% possible. Potholes are inevitable, even if there are smarter and better ways to build and maintain roads today. Come winter and spring, in almost every town in every climate, there will be potholes.

As for the cars, most don’t hold up so well. The average American vehicle on the road sustains more than $400 per year in damages due to potholes. Those damages come in the form of blown, dented or broken tires and rims, shocks and struts, and suspension and steering components. Other car parts that suffer from the bumps and jumps of potholes: control arms, tie rods, sway bar and sway bar links, ball joints, idler arms, tie rods, axle shafts and wheel bearings. At the very least, wheel alignment is compromised by the repeated jarring effects of a pothole-ridden commute. In some cases, undercarriage components such as the exhaust system and lower engine damage can occur from something as simple as a 5-inch deep pothole.

Potholes can happen anywhere – and they do. Whenever a few dollars are not spent on fixing small pavement cracks, many more dollars need to be spent a year or two down the road on the huge, gaping potholes that result. Cheaper throw-and-go, temporary-fix asphalt is often used to fix potholes when higher-quality, cold-mix asphalt would work better over time.

Futuristic cars designed for potholes

Car designers and manufacturers are looking at the pothole problem with inventiveness. Maybe they know that with an aging infrastructure and strapped budgets, millions of miles of America’s roadways are not being properly preserved. Perhaps they conclude that a portion of the car-buying public will choose to take matters into their own hands, purchasing cars that stand up better to those potholes.

There even is a car model that claims it is being designed to specifically withstand potholes. Still in the concept stage, Hyundai, the Korean automaker, unveiled its “Curb” model at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2011.

“Curb is about urban living,” Phil Zak, the center’s design chief, told The New York Times. He described the car as “a small crossover, an example of ‘tough tech’ and ‘fluidic sculpture.’”  It also is the carmaker’s play for a younger, more hip and decidedly more urban market.

Jason Brown, another Hyundai designer, also told the Times, “We wanted the Curb to be urban tough without looking like a Brink’s truck. City driving was going to be its forte, not crossing the Rubicon trail, but we wanted it to have urban armor for daily driving on city streets.” Other features are retractable roof and bike racks, plus iPad-like controls on the interior for the car’s complete sound and audio connectivity.

Sounds like pothole resilience to us. Hyundai claims Curb will be available as early as 2012.

But another breakthrough vehicle concept is the Google self-driving car. It reportedly uses video cameras, radar sensors, laser range finds and electronic maps assembled through the collective data that is gathered by all such cars and fed into the search behemoth’s massive data centers. The car would reportedly know or sense hazardous pavement, as its designers claim it has proven capable of doing over 140,000 miles of testing over many months.

There is no word yet as to who will actually manufacture and market the car. Many people are scratching their heads as to why a tech company would dip its toe into the water-filled pothole of a mature and often-troubled industry. The vague rationale revealed thus far is that with Google technology, the industry and consumer experience would be transformed. It doesn’t hurt that American automakers have returned to profitability, and that overall new vehicles sales of “light vehicle” (non-truck and SUV) sales will hit 76.5 million units in 2011.

And while there seems to be a lot of activity around futuristic concepts that withstand the age-old problem of potholes, it hardly is the first time that Detroit has approached building cars that can stand up to some pavement abuse. The first shock absorbers, made with leather springs, preceded the automobile in 19th century stagecoaches.

In a story reported by the Associated Press in 2005, engineer and entrepreneur Amar Bose was working on a very specific challenge in designing car shock absorber systems: how to create a cornering capability without creating a swerve-prone, bumpier ride. The report says that the now 81-year-old Bose, chairman of Framingham, Massachusetts-based Bose Corporation, spent more than 50 years trying to figure out why “potholes seem harder to conquer than Mount Everest.”

Bose’s breakthrough technology differs from mechanical spring-and-shock absorbers. Instead, his suspension system employs high-voltage electrical coils and magnets. The effect is to temper bumps from potholes as much as the rollover tendency around curves and corners in roads. The problem: It would add $5000 to the cost of any car. There haven’t been any takers in the six years since the technology was revealed.

Preventive driving

So while the Curb, the Google Car and Bose suspension systems have yet to become available to even high-end, early-adopter motorists, there are steps that any driver can take with whatever they drive. Potholes are everywhere and so are cars. It is a reconciling of these two incontrovertible and inexorable forces.

The American Automobile Association Mid-Atlantic region has issued a warning to all motorists that, given the conditions created by winter weather in 2011, motorists need to observe certain precautions. According to the AAA director of Public and Government Affairs, “While many motorists’ cars have made it through the winter storm season unscathed, they could still fall victim to a pothole left in its aftermath. Potholes are not only vexing and nerve-rattling to motorists, they are also a significant threat to the safety of motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Hitting a pothole can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles, possibly resulting in a crash, and swerving to avoid a pothole can be just as dangerous.”

The association’s press release notes, “Potholes and the resulting pockmark of quick fix patches are a more obvious hazard on roads that have not been recently resurfaced or had basic maintenance due to a lack of transportation funding.” Given those conditions, they recommend taking several precautions:

Tire inspections – Tread wear and inflation are very important because better tires mean a better cushion between the car and the pothole (to test yours, insert an American quarter into a tread groove; if the rubber fails to cover part of George Washington’s head, your tread is worn).

Check the suspension – Excessive vibration, vehicle handling problems and uneven wear on tire treads are clues to problematic shocks and struts. With poor suspension to begin with, the damage from a pothole to the undercarriage can be even more significant.

Eagle-eye driving – Always look for potholes ahead. In traffic, this is not possible if you follow too closely on the heels of the car in front of you. And if you swerve, be sure it isn’t into traffic in adjacent lanes.

Reduce speed – This is basic physics: speed x mass + pothole = damage. At a slower speed, you are more likely to be able to react in time to avoid the pothole altogether.

Don’t trust puddles – A puddle might be 1/4–inch deep or six inches deep. Regard all with fear, loathing and avoidance.

Inspect vehicle alignment – General safety calls for good alignment, which is often the first thing to go with a hard pothole hit.

Pay attention to noises and vibrations – Another indicator of pothole damage is unusual sounds and vibration. It’s a call to have your car inspected for dislodged wheel weights, damaged tires or broken suspension components, with the likely culprit being – you guessed it ­– a pothole.

In other words, the best technology right now sits between your own ears. Drive safely, protect yourself and your passengers as much as you would your car. And keep an eye out for some exciting new vehicles and suspension systems … a few years down the road (a road which, in all likelihood, will be riddled with potholes).