In today’s Finshots, we talk about the economic impact of potholes on Indian roads and how the highway authority intends to innovatively tackle it.

The Story

Potholes! They’re one of the most annoying things about Indian roads. They don’t just delay your daily commute but can also be life threatening.

For context, in 2022 potholes caused nearly 4,500 accidents, killing over 1,800 people. And that’s not a good look for a country that has the second largest road network in the world.

So, the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) wants to fix this problem for good. And to do that, it has quite an innovative idea up its sleeve ― self-healing roads!

Okay, we know it sounds impossible. But over a decade ago, Erik Schlangen, a scientist from the Netherlands created a material called self-healing asphalt which can repair itself.

But how does it work, you ask?

Look, asphalt is commonly used to build roads worldwide. Most Indian roads, especially highways are asphalt based too. And that’s because it’s very easy to work with. But the problem with asphalt is that it isn’t very durable. Its tiny pores absorb noise and allow water to pass through, which eventually leads to cracks and potholes.

So Schlangen threw in small steel fibres into the asphalt mix. It created a kind of material which could expand on contact with heat, making it capable of closing small cracks on its own. So potholes wouldn’t stand a chance.

And on paper this sounds like a genius idea since sunshine can be a source of heat for roads. But that isn’t enough to help the material expand and repair itself. So you’ll have to run a huge heat generating induction machine on the self-healing asphalt to warm it up and let it do its job.

Yeah, that might not make it entirely self-healing. But it can still be more convenient because you don’t have to close damaged roads for days together to repair them.

This novel idea is being tested on 12 different roads in the Netherlands, one of which has been open to the public since 2010. And they seem to be in perfect working condition, outliving regular asphalt roads which remain in good condition for only about 7–10 years. This simply implies less frequent road repairs and reduced costs.

But here’s the thing. Self-healing asphalt can be 25% more expensive than the regular stuff. But if you remove repeated maintenance from the equation, you’ll see that the technology can actually save the government a lot of money in the long run. The Netherlands for example, estimates that it could potentially save €90 million (or ₹800 crores) in road repairs and related activities if all roads are made with it. So it could be a boon for big and congested cities like Mumbai where fixing potholes became 25% more expensive in 2023.

And that’s not the only savings it brings in.

If you think about it, it can indirectly improve GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or the market value of all the goods and services produced in the country too. And that’s because the World Bank estimates that road crashes cost the Indian economy 3–5% of its GDP each year in the form of families losing their sole breadwinners to death or disability. In the case of a disability, you have to consider the additional cost of taking care of the incapacitated family member, the burden of which can sometimes even drive them into poverty.

Then there’s the added economic benefit from reduced traffic too. You see, during peak traffic times, commuters in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata spend 1.5 hours more daily than other huge Asian cities. This means that freight, over 60% of which moves via the road network in India ends up getting delayed. Vehicles also burn more fuel. And that can translate into $22 billion lost to traffic congestion every year.

But fixing potholes on city roads can increase the average speed of a vehicle by 15 km per hour.

It can save you money as well, because more potholes on roads means increased vehicle damage. In most cases, repairing these damages especially for SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) and other big cars can cost anywhere ₹5,000–15,000. And insurers may not cover them either.

So you can see why self-healing asphalt can really make a difference.

Which brings us to the final point — “When will this happen?”

Well, even though we are eternal optimists at Finshots, we don’t think it's going to happen anytime soon and even if it does happen, it’s unlikely to get us pothole-free roads.


Well, because the Indian road problem isn’t an asphalt problem. It’s a corruption problem.

Government officials recommend different types and grades of raw materials for road works in India based on climate and traffic. However, contractors routinely play fast and loose with the tender specifications to save on cost. If you ask the contractors, they’ll say that they’re only doing this because they have to account for the kickbacks (paid out to officials and politicians). And while third-party audits were supposed to fix the quality problem, they have consistently failed to flag issues, because the officials that award the contract (for road construction) often end up commissioning the audits as well. So if the officials stand to benefit from the kickbacks, they’ll make sure the contractor gets a clean audit report.

So yeah, while the idea of self-healing roads sound like they could be great fix for a country like India, we are unlikely to see real progress until we solve some of the systemic issues plaguing India's road construction.

Until then…

Fun Fact: Self-healing asphalt technology is also making way for the possibility of electric vehicles charging themselves on the go, while they drive. Steel fibres in the asphalt simply mean that you can integrate wireless charging infrastructure into the roads. And with enough heat, the asphalt could generate electricity, giving electric cars a quick charge while at traffic signals or intersections. But yeah, it could seem a bit too far-fetched for a country like India where electric vehicle adoption is still nascent and road work has a long way to go.

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