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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Should the Feds Drive Smart Cars - Making Use of Telematics?

As reported by the Washington Business Journal: Sure, it’s a little Big Brother. But with telematics, government could save a whole bunch of money — and industry could sell a lot of cool technologies.

Here's what telematics — which combines telecommunications and information processing to send, receive, and store information related to vehicle fleets — would allow agencies to do: monitor not only if its employees are speeding in government-leased cars, but whether they’re doing too many rapid starts or sudden stops, or even idling too much. They’ll be able to see if the employee is riding the brakes. They’ll be able to see whether they’re driving reckless — and even how the employee handled the car right before an accident.

Little creepy? Maybe. But the technology could save the government a lot of money, the Government Accountability Office said in a new report. Fleet managers could essentially provide tips for drivers on being more fuel-efficient, for example. They can take privileges away from those that aren't following the rules of the road and risking car crashes. They could even use data to defend employees against frivolous lawsuits by people claiming a federal worker was at fault in an accident. 

On top of that, agencies could analyze precise utilization rates of vehicles in their fleets and eliminate cars or trucks that don’t get used. They could see the remaining brake pad depth and engine diagnostics (yes, this technology gets that granular) to determine when maintenance is needed.

There are examples of savings already achieved by agencies, in fact. A fleet manager at Idaho National Laboratory reported that telematics data contributed to the decision to eliminate 65 vehicles since fiscal 2011, with an estimated average annual savings of about $390,000.

So then, with telematics offered as an option by the General Services Administration on the vehicles that it leases to agencies, why aren’t more using it? For one thing, certain costs that telematics would save are not their problem. For example, fuel costs are covered by a monthly fee, which is based primarily on miles traveled, so being more fuel-efficient isn’t really on their radar.

At the same time, telematics costs money. How much varies depending on what type of technologies are installed and how.

Some might be installed by the manufacturer, some might be add-on systems, and some might be mobile device applications and programs. Some might provide data via satellite or cellular connections, transmitting on a regular basis or when a vehicle passes a fixed-data download station. (Fixed download stations pose mostly upfront, fixed costs, whereas the cost for a satellite connection is typically levied in ongoing monthly data charges, the GAO noted.) On top of all that, fleets may rent telematic devices for a short period of time to obtain a snapshot of usage data, or may select a long-term contract for ongoing monitoring.

That brings us to the contracting community. The General Services Administration is currently engaged in efforts to secure new contracts for telematics devices for federal employees, and hopes to have them available by the end of fiscal year 2014, according to the GAO. None of the specific vendors bidding for the contracts were noted. As part of that effort, though, the agency is hoping to leverage government’s buying power, as it's been doing a lot lately through its strategic sourcing efforts. Whether there's enough demand is tough to know, given that agencies have only recently begun to pursue the technology in significant quantity.