A new study suggests that data collected on the smartphones of Uber drivers could help monitor bridges and prevent them from collapsing.
According to the study, collecting GPS location and acceleration data from drivers — both automatically recorded by ride-sharing apps like Uber — provides structural engineers with key insights into the health of bridges.
It will provide them with almost constant real-time monitoring of the bridge’s robustness and potentially reduce the number of fatal collapses.
The study, led by Dr. Thomas Matarazzo, deputy director of the U.S. Army’s Center for Engineering Innovation, comes after 143 people were killed last Sunday when a pedestrian bridge collapsed in the Indian state of Gujarat.
The 230-foot (70-meter) bridge was recently renovated and only reopened to the public a week ago.
Officials told the Press Trust of India at the time that it gave way because it could not handle the numbers above.
Other recent large-scale bridge collapses include Metro bridge in Mexico City 26 deaths in May 2021, Disaster at the Morandi Bridge in GenoaItaly, August 2018, with 43 deaths.
In Dr. Matarazzo’s study, researchers drove across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge 102 times using iPhone 5s and 6s to record their movements.
Data was then collected from 72 Uber bridge trips as drivers went about their daily business.
Bridge inspections are often done with the naked eye, not data
According to the study: “Modern bridge condition assessments are based on visual inspections of field inspection records rather than large digital datasets—a paradigm that severely limits the frequency of structural health assessments.”
But using carpooling data, which can be collected on a daily basis, structural engineers can accurately measure the low-level vertical vibration and twisting that bridges experience over their lifespan, the researchers say.
They add that 50 percent of the world’s population uses a smartphone, which could be an easy, free way to help keep bridges safe.
Despite the small dataset, the authors claim that the results are largely accurate.
There are some privacy issues with driver data, and experts worry that tech companies are not respecting workers’ rights.
But some drivers have expressed support for the plan, saying they would be happy to help prevent a potentially deadly disaster.