Some students struggle to stay awake in their college civil engineering course. Coady Cameron was starting a business.
In 2012, during his fourth year, Cameron was learning how cities collect information about their street infrastructure. Turns out many road departments hire high-priced consulting firms to parachute into town and drive around in a van that tracks roughness by sending a laser into the pavement. “I was like, I can collect this data with what’s in my back pocket right now,” recalls Cameron. “Why are they using these big expensive pieces of equipment?”
In time that insight grew into a company co-founded with brother Drew called TotalPave. The Canadian startup, based in the New Brunswick capital of Fredericton, has figured out a way to make reliable road-quality assessments using just a smartphone. Ultimately Cameron believes TotalPave can help thousands of small and midsized cities gather all the data they need to keep local streets in great shape at a fraction of the cost charged by big firms.
“The problem is not that municipal engineers don’t know how to maintain the roads and streets in their network,” he said during the 2016 TRB Six Minute Pitch competition, an annual contest for transportation startups, which TotalPave won. “It’s that they simply cannot afford the services that provide objective road-condition data that allows them to make the important paving decisions.”
More than just potholes
Timing matters when it comes to pavement. Roads don’t wear down at a perfectly gradual rate; after a certain point, says Cameron, there’s a steep drop-off in condition. Fixing a road before that cliff can be the difference between low-cost minor maintenance and pricy major reconstruction. Part of the reason the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) Canada face such costly infrastructure crises today is that officials have deferred so much street repair.
Big cities can shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own road-quality vans or pay high consulting fees, but smaller ones can only afford to bring in the professionals every few years. As a result they might rely on less-objective data to fill the gaps and run the risk of missing those critical maintenance windows. But Cameron estimates that TotalPave provides a similar service at 15-to-20 times less than a typical one-time road assessment.
The reason is simple: the TotalPave package requires little more than a smartphone.
Right now the company offers two services. One is called TotalPave IRI, short for International Roughness Index. Local road managers can load the program onto a phone, mount it to any “road-worthy vehicle,” press the big green button, and start cruising around town. The IRI program logs accelerometer data from the phone’s micro-movements and pairs it with GPS data and any prior road conditions input into the system to spit out a single value of infrastructure quality.
“A rougher road is going to cause the vehicle to vibrate more,” says Cameron. “We’re looking for really, really small undulations. We’re not looking for potholes and huge dips and what-not. It’s a lot finer detail.”
The other product is TotalPave PCI, short for Pavement Condition Index. A street surveyor in the field can punch in standard road distresses—anything from a longitudinal transverse crack to a one-foot-deep pothole—and automatically get a PCI value in return. Anyone can be trained to use the program in half an hour, says Cameron, meaning cities can have an intern do the task rather than spending money on an outside consultant or taking up time from a salaried staff engineer.
Together the IRI and PCI tools can help local planners craft a street repair program that’s right for the city. “You can do as simple as exporting an Excel sheet and saying: ok, these ones here are about to fall off the cliff, so let’s see if we can do some minor maintenance on it,” says Cameron. “Or you can get all the way up to optimization models.”
Data for small-city planners
After that fateful day in fourth-year, Cameron studied smartphone-based road assessment for a masters thesis at the University of New Brunswick. The method proved a bit less accurate and more variable than high-tech consulting firm vans but “well within the range that you need to perform this kind of analysis,” he says. The idea subsequently earned him a seed round of $100,000 in an innovation competition, he says, and TotalPave officially launched in 2013.
In 2015 the company ran an early adopter’s program with four paid clients in Canada. One was the City of Fredericton, where Cameron previously worked as a summer student, which tested out the PCI program.
Mike Walker, the manager of roads and streets for the town of 50,000, and Jody Boone, a project engineer with the city, tell CityLab they would typically assess PCI by driving around town and conducting a visual inspection. That eye test, coupled with their knowledge of a street’s age, led to judgment calls about what needed to be resurfaced or treated. There was nothing wrong with that system, but using TotalPave made things “a little bit more objective,” says Boone.
“The visual inspection—that’s a little based on our own personal thoughts,” he says. “The different distresses that are actually happening out on the road, now they’re all recorded. You can categorize them based on a proper replacement year instead of an approximate age.”
Where the system might really come in handy for Fredericton is long-term planning. Knowing exactly when a pothole has been patched helps “project the life of the road out,” says Boone. Since the TotalPave system works off GIS maps of a city, it’s possible to combine road indexes with information on curbs, sidewalks, and other surface infrastructure—a convergence that can help coordinate repair jobs. Plus a map of streets colored by quality is just a strong visual for funding presentations.
“When we discuss things with our mayor and council,” says Walker, “we’ll have that data to back some information up.”
There’s still room for improvement. During his TRB pitch, Cameron acknowledged to Gabe Klein, the former Chicago and D.C. transportation chief who served as a contest judge, that the TotalPave system had not received a third-party validation. Cameron says his thesis revealed no statistically significant IRI differences with an existing street profile—so long as the smartphone was securely mounted in a vehicle—but the company continues to refine the program.
Imperfections aside, there’s a clear value in providing small and midsized cities with a reasonably priced alternative to the same types of infrastructure tools that large metros take for granted. Cameron says TotalPave is raising a round of venture capital at the moment and hopes to be in 38 municipalities within the first year of operations. Longer-term the company has targeted 13,500 cities in the U.S. and Canada that seem primed to benefit from such a service.
“We think these will be the municipalities that don’t currently collect the data or are fairly new to it,” he says. “Going from not collecting data at all to collecting any kind of data is a huge jump.”