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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking the value of potholes

Placed in the right context, bad roads can suddenly take on new value – their defects provide valuable data for a driverless future

Road infrastructure – used, worn and expensive

Decaying, aging infrastructure is the bane of the industrial world. Burdens are growing, decay is accelerating and budgets are shrinking.

Even in a tiny country like Denmark, an early-2016 “state of the nation” report by FRI (the Danish Association of Consulting Engineers) estimates that it would cost approx. €6.7–10 billion just to bring the nation’s potholed and disintegrating roads back up to scratch. In the UK, an Automobile Association poll revealed that 13 million drivers say they’ve had their cars damaged by potholed roads in the past two years.

But perspective is everything.

Testing self-driving cars

In the US, the states of California and Michigan are currently (early 2016) competing for slices of almost USD 4 billion in federal funding for a location suitable for the large-scale, realistic testing of self-driving cars. California is lobbying for a decommissioned Navy base now zappily named GoMentum Station (with the big apparent advantage of proximity to Silicon Valley, home of Apple, Tesla Motors and Google – all the powerhouse names in the world of self-driving vehicles), while Michigan is pushing the now-razed former Willow Run factory site at an industrial ghost town near Ypsilanti.

Michigan, on the other hand, is far away from the buzz-building action – the rust-belt venue for the recent debacle of US car manufacturing and the General Motors 2009 bankruptcy, with Detroit struggling ever since with the debilitating transition from boom town to ghost town. But it seems Michigan has a counter-intuitive secret weapon – worse potholes and poorer weather.

Pothole heaven – real-life driving conditions, and a source of income

The value of an imperfect world

U.S. safety regulators are trying to establish new rules of the road for driverless diligence and autonomous (or driverless or robotic – the terminology hasn’t quite gelled for us less insightful consumers) vehicles. The point here is that the beat-up roads, poorly maintained infrastructure and cold weather so often considered a down side for Michigan can suddenly have a significant positive commercial value – apparently making the Willow Run factory site a better proxy for the solidly imperfect arena of real-world driving conditions.

Data from ideal conditions, sunny weather and good visibility don’t provide a good basis for building the algorithms that are more important than the metal, mechanics and motors in the driverless vehicles of next-generation thinking. Crumbling, bashed-up infrastructure, gaping potholes and bad weather may not be pleasant for the human component, but they are perfect for testing purposes. In fact, the worse the better because the driverless cars we’ll soon be risking our lives in will only be as good as the data mined for their control algorithms.

That’s why the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a 32-acre fake town close to the Willow Run location, has apparently been booked solid with autonomous testing since its summer 2015 opening.

Data is the new infrastructure for cars

Companies, legislators and safety regulators are all trying to harvest and mine as much data as possible – and of the best possible depth and quality – as the basis for the driverless vehicles and intelligent transportation systems of the future. This data will be the intangible new infrastructure that will be even more important than the road surfaces. The better data they get, the safer we’ll all be.

This perspective seems like poor consolation when the suspension bottoms out on a country road, or I go sailing over the handlebars when I hit a pothole on my bike.  I’m sure some company will make a packet from mapping potholes – glorying in the fact that  it’s not their responsibility to repair them.

But the point is that Michigan isn’t selling the state of the roads – it’s “selling” a particular value for a particular set of customers, and thus practicing customer-centricity in a topsy-turvy digital world, where it takes a new mindset to sniff out the commercial opportunities.