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Discovery Pothole Patrol introduces advanced AI to assist in pothole detection

Pothole Patrol vehicle

Photo by Creamer Media

29th June 2023

By: Darren Parker

Creamer Media Contributing Editor Online

     

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Insurance company Discovery Insure has introduced advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to its Pothole Patrol fleet, which will enable it to detect road defects more accurately and efficiently.

The Pothole Patrol public-private partnership is a smart mobility initiative aimed at enabling the speedy reporting of potholes to effect repairs across Johannesburg.

The advanced AI technology installed in the Pothole Patrol fleet scans the road, identifying potholes, cracks and imperfections in real-time as the Pothole Patrol vehicle drives.

Further, the technology also measures and categorises all other road defects, such as faded paint, providing invaluable insights for prioritisation of work and enabling a swift reaction.

At a launch event in Johannesburg on June 29, Discovery Insure strategy and value-added products head Kgodiso Mokonyane said the technology would empower the Pothole Patrol team to make more informed decisions and deliver road repair services more efficiently.

The Pothole Patrol team is made up of 40 individuals and 16 vehicles, consisting of eight repair vehicles and eight support vehicles.

The AI pothole detection system, which uses cameras to scan the road surface, is being supplied by local technology developer Sensorit, which developed both the hardware and software solutions involved.

Sensorit CEO Aubrey Mnisi told Engineering News that the devices had been installed in only three of the vehicles in the fleet so far, but that plans to scale up the installations were under way, along with plans to even add the devices to the Johannesburg Road Agency’s (JRA’s) fleet of inspection vehicles.

He explained that the devices were installed in the grills of the Pothole Patrol vehicles and could provide accurate scans of the roads at speeds of between 60 km/h and 80 km/h.

Mnisi said that, aside from the efficiency that the AI technology provides, it also helps keep officials safe by ensuring they do not have to stop and get out of their vehicles in dangerous neighbourhoods.

He claimed that only two other companies globally have developed similar technologies – one in the US and one in Germany.

Since the launch of the Pothole Patrol initiative in May 2021, Discovery Insure has applied its assets and capabilities such as the telematics technology applied in Vitality Drive to identify potholes. The new AI technology, however, will significantly enhance this capability.

The Pothole Patrol partnership was originally launched by insurance company Discovery Insure, in partnership with fellow insurer Dialdirect, the City of Joburg (CoJ) and the JRA. Dialdirect has since exited the partnership and been replaced by car rental company Avis.

“We believe everyone has a role to play in making our roads safer and, as an integrated mobility business, we are committed to providing our customers with a safe and reliable driving experience. This partnership will ensure that we stay true to this commitment,” Avis Southern Africa CEO Ramasela Ganda said at the launch of the newly structured partnership.

After the initiative was launched and 50 000 potholes were repaired, the Pothole Patrol application – which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or Google Play – and WhatsApp chatbot was launched in October 2021.

“Potholes are a major safety hazard, and we believe this cross-sector partnership aimed at tackling the problem of potholes in the city, will help make Johannesburg’s roads safer for everyone,” Discovery Insure CEO Anton Ossip said.

More than 175 176 potholes have been filled since the initiative started, using more than 7 000 t of asphalt, to cover a collective area of road amounting to about 43 691 m2 or an area the size of about five rugby fields

The app has been downloaded about 13 000 times since launch, with more than 58 000 potholes reported through the app to date.

“Through shared-value and by keeping safety for all at the heart of what we do, repairing potholes is just one way we get to make a difference. And we look forward to continuing the good work already achieved with Avis on board," said Mokonyane.

Potholes occur when the road surface is repeatedly exposed to extreme weather conditions involving water, coupled with poor road maintenance and consistently high volumes of load-bearing traffic.

Exposure to high temperatures over time can result in the formation of cracks in the asphalt. These then widen and during periods of rain, when water seeps in, this erodes the consistency of the underlying layers beneath the tar, which is typically a mix of gravel and crushed rock. The erosion process causes a loss of strength and the affected area collapses, resulting in a hole.

The longer the area is exposed to weather elements, the more the edges will erode. This is made worse with high volumes of traffic and ongoing poor road maintenance, causing the potholes to become bigger and more damaging for road users.

“Providing quality roads that are accessible and liveable for our communities is the JRA’s mission as the entity manages a 13 599 km road network across the CoJ. We, therefore, welcome this extended partnership in support of the Discovery Pothole Patrol, which is assisting our depots with some of our reactive maintenance on our extensive road network and thus ensuing safer mobility for road users,” explained JRA acting CEO Zweli Nyathi.

“The JRA and the CoJ’s Transport Department is transforming the way in which it looks at service delivery, through partnerships and developmental models where citizens and business are no longer the passive recipients of services but active participants, working together for the greater good,” Transport MMC Kenny Kunene said.

The monthly impact of pothole damage in South Africa, with Discovery estimating the cost to South Africans to amount to about R500-million a month, equates to buying 550 000 brand new tyres monthly.

“Through the initiative, Discovery Insure clients have made a potential saving of 21% from expected pothole claims,” Mokonyane said.

Discovery Insure data showed a 26% drop in pothole-related claims in Johannesburg from May to December 2021, compared with an increase of 45% in the rest of Gauteng over the same period. In 2022, pothole-related incidents per 100 km increased by 29% throughout the country, while it remained flat in Johannesburg.

The Discovery Pothole Patrol operates seven days a week, focusing on major roads in Johannesburg that are known to have potholes and those reported on the Pothole Patrol app. The team of technicians will also work with local authorities to identify and repair potholes in areas that are not regularly patrolled.

As part of the renewed partnership, Discovery Insure and Avis have together launched the Discovery Pothole Patrol Academy. The academy is a skills development programme which aims to empower youth from nearby communities with viable skills that can be used immediately after the training and to improve their income-generating prospects.

“The academy will create a pipeline for the Discovery Pothole Patrol, and add capacity to the existing team of technicians. The graduates will also be equipped with business skills, and therefore be encouraged to start their own small businesses in the road maintenance industry,” Mokanyane said.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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