Even corruption can’t halt the advance of connectivity

It's no longer that uncommon in the US for municipalities or individual state agencies to decide to get their vehicle fleets wired up. In an age of declining revenues and strained budgets, knowing how your resources are being used and you money getting spent makes complete sense.

Even so, the decision to connect is one that, until now, never gets made on a state level. This also makes sense but in a completely different way. Scratch a state agency and, inevitably, you'll find it's somebody's fiefdom with an appropriated budget and numerous other goodies coming with it. Anyone whose intent is to artfully squander public funds might first want to know where their own costs lay. But even if you want to know how efficiently your fleet is being deployed, you wouldn't necessarily want that information going above your desk. As a result, any attempt to establish a fleet telematics solution on an entire state government is bound to meet a lot of institutional resistance if for no other reason than to spare themselves having to witness so many oxen being gored.

All that began changing this last summer, when Louisiana, of all states, suddenly announced they had awarded a contract and now had a programme underway to retrofit GPS units onto their entire vehicle fleet of 10,500-plus cars, trucks and vans. In a way, it is remarkable that the first state to embrace the idea of the connected vehicle fleet is one whose byzantine levels of corruption and tradition of political hanky-panky have earned it an almost revered status. In 2013 the US Justice Department cited Louisiana as the most corrupt state in America with 403 public officials convicted of corruption between 2002 and 2011 – the highest state rate per head of population.

But then again, why not? In Louisiana, like anywhere else, it's never a question of whether or not to waste the taxpayers' money, it's really just a question of choosing where and where not to waste it.

“In 2014, Louisiana spent $68M (£45M) for fuel, maintenance, and insurance alone,” said assistant commissioner for procurement, Jan Cassidy. “We expect to save $30M over the next five years. The GPS will allow us to follow routes, driving habits and speeds. We'll be able to cut down on inefficient vehicle usage and cut down on accidents. Better driving habits translate directly into lower costs.”

The decision to install GPS on a state wide level follows the lead of Louisiana's Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which, beginning in 2006, deployed them on forestry vehicles used by firefighters in order to keep track of them while in dangerous situations. After that, the Agriculture Department expanded it in 2010 to include all its vehicles. “The savings in fuel alone were both substantial and immediate,” says agriculture commissioner Mike Strain. “We went from using 567,212 gallons of fuel in 2009 to 404,264 in 2010. That's a 28% drop.” Strain added that it also allowed for a reduction in the size of the department's vehicle fleet from 627 vehicles to 494.

The plan, which is being carried out by the Bureau of Weights and Standards, involves bringing in groups of State vehicles to one of its maintenance depots for conversion, which is estimated to take less than thirty minutes per vehicle. After that, the vehicles' activities will be constantly monitored for location, speed, hard braking, fuel consumption, and other functions. This will be performed by GPS Insights, a Phoenix, Arizona-based provider of customised GPS tracking software and services, which won the tender.  The state agencies operating the GPS-equipped vehicles will be required to pay a $25.57 per-vehicle fee from their own operating budgets. While acknowledging that this might represent a considerable bite on the user, Cassidy attempted to mute the howls by noting whatever savings the agencies might accrue from safer, more efficient vehicle operation, could be spent at the agency's discretion.

Of course, this particular inducement would be short-lived.  Once the efficiencies get revealed, the agency's operating budget will inevitably get reduced to accommodate it. Also, it was revealed, that once the use patterns are better understood, rather than maintain individual agency fleets, they will be reorganised into a general pool which can be drawn from on an as-needed basis. This programme, which is not yet officially established, will be called, LA-Drive.

Needless to say, the move has not been universally popular in Baton Rouge. Critics were quick to suggest that it was just another example of Louisiana politics and that the savings won't be anything like Cassidy predicts. Also that it was mainly just a PR ploy intended to help the governor, Bobby Jindal, who, at that point, was still a Republican presidential hopeful. Some also noted that vehicles from both the governor's personal fleet and those of certain top cabinet members were exempted from GPS installation. They suggested that, perhaps if they had been included, taxpayers might gain some concrete idea how much those same vehicles were being used for out-of-state political campaigning as opposed to actual state government work.

Since then, of course, much has changed. Jindal has not only had to stand down as a presidential candidate, he lost to a Democrat in his re-election bid as governor. Though Jindal's political career is far from over, his time in the statehouse is. Whether his planned LA Drive finds traction without him is hard to say. But on the other hand, GPS units have now been deployed on nearly all state vehicles and whether they want to or not, Louisiana is leading the way and it’s up to the other forty-nine states to follow. 

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