May 29 2024

Memphis Confronts Seasonal Street Damage with AI-Enabled Capabilities

The Tennessee city is using technology to find and fix potholes.

Precipitation that’s seeped into the asphalt through cracks or other defects can wreak havoc on urban roadways in winter as it repeatedly freezes and thaws. As vehicles drive over the area, adding pressure, the pavement may weaken and eventually buckle, forming a pothole.

In areas such as Memphis, Tenn., that have ample traffic and potentially months of cold, snowy weather, the cycle can be especially brutal.

While a mild winter might yield 50,000 potholes in the city, street maintenance crew members can fill as many as 80,000 during a year with a big freeze, says Memphis’ Public Works Director Robert Knecht.

“We are a big transportation hub,” Knecht says. “There’s a lot of heavy truck container shipping. We had a couple big winter storms in the last few years; you’ll see a 30, 40 percent uptick in our numbers just because of that.”

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Memphis Locates Street and Property Imperfections

Historically, about 10 to 15 percent of the potholes the city has filled were reported by residents. The majority, Knecht says, were spotted by city workers as they serviced their assigned route.

Potholes can be an expensive problem for drivers; an AAA survey found after hitting one, the average vehicle repair cost is $600, with the overall damages totaling $26.5 billion a year in the U.S.

Potholes — and the number of vacant properties — are also two key factors that influence residents’ opinion of how their local government is performing, which led Memphis’ former mayor and CIO to look for ways technology could help the city address the issues, according to Brent Mitchell, vice president, Go-to-Market at Google Public Sector.


Tennessee’s ranking on USA Today’s list of the states with the most pothole-related concerns

Source:, “Ranked: States with the Worst Pothole Problems,” Feb. 15, 2024

“The CIO approached Google Cloud to develop a cost-effective and innovative solution that aligned with the city’s priorities in public works for that year,” Mitchell says. “Google Cloud recommended conducting a machine learning proof-of-concept.”

Memphis officials worked with Google and one of its partners, an analytics and AI service provider, to create and train machine learning models to differentiate a pothole from a manhole cover or other object, initially using video from public transit bus cameras.

As the models were refined, the detection accuracy, Mitchell says, quickly climbed from 50 percent to more than 90 percent.

READ MORE: Local governments develop early AI use cases.

AI Capabilities Can Help Cities Identify Problems

Memphis currently uses cameras that are mounted on street sweeper machines and municipal SUVs to capture road images, which are uploaded via a Wi-Fi connection to the Google Cloud network at the end of the day when the vehicles return to their corresponding facility.

City employees receive a notification from the system and can access the data through a web-based interface.

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“One of our GIS specialists will review the images and determine whether or not there are potholes,” Knecht says. “We’re still doing that QA/QC step.”

Memphis also hopes to fully implement a similar detection model to identify buildings that have fallen into disrepair.

“We have 245,000-plus parcels of property in our city,” Knecht says. “Blight is a huge issue for us, both politically and just from the citizen’s point of view. As the vehicle drives down the road, it can look for high grass, weeds, other types of conditions and help us on a more frequent basis do an inventory so we can tackle the blighted property conditions without requiring a call from a citizen.”

LEARN: AI customer service improves citizen experience.

Memphis Covers a Lot of Ground with AI Assistance

With Memphis’ size and scope, being able to proactively identify exactly where potholes and property issues exist, instead of relying on road crew members and residents to notice them, has been particularly helpful, Knecht says.

“We’re not dense; we’re very spread out,” he says. “Given the city’s geography, sometimes there’s a lot of distance to cover. If you know where they are, you don’t have to just drive around looking for them. That’s a huge efficiency.”

Google has helped a number of government agencies add AI-supported virtual assistant, translation and other tools, Mitchell says. Memphis is the first city it’s worked with to detect potholes and abandoned properties using the technology — which he says holds particular promise for the public sector.

“Memphis is proving the viability of a cost-effective, cloud-based machine learning model to prioritize road maintenance and resources,” Mitchell says. “We anticipate other cities will replicate it.”

Alex Potemkin/Getty Images

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