The thief had swiped the Caltrans GMC Safari from a Park and Ride lot in the early-morning hours of July 24. By 9:30 a.m., department engineers had noticed the van missing and reported it stolen.
About an hour later, California Highway Patrol officers found the vehicle and arrested the alleged thief as he removed tools from the vehicle.
The reason for the caught-red-handed recovery?
“GPS had just been installed the day before,” Transportation Department spokesman Matt Rocco said.
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By the end of this month, Caltrans will finish outfitting its vast fleet with high-tech devices that tell managers everything from where a vehicle has gone, how long it remains idle or when its check-engine light goes on to how fast it has been driven and whether it complies with state smog standards. The system even tracks which employee is driving.
The department is spending $2.5 million on the first-of-its-kind program for 7,500 sedans, trucks, snowplows and portable signs with Verizon Networkfleet technology. A data-reporting service will cost another $1.5 million annually.
Other state departments will likely deploy similar monitors in their fleets over the next few years, industry experts say. Private industry has already embraced the technology, and a few other states have deployed driving-data monitors to improve operations and hold employees accountable for their time and habits behind the wheel.
But access to granular driving data has also revived a classic debate in some quarters that pits privacy rights against what business and government need to know.
A fight between carmakers and auto insurers broke out earlier this year over a bill that would have loosened the manufacturers’ grip on data their vehicles’ computers generate. The measure died amid accusations that giving insurers access to the information would lead them to unfairly punish some drivers with higher rates.
And while the data contained in the 50 or so reports the Caltrans system generates are produced by one machine talking to another, the facts must still must be interpreted by human managers.
Caltrans is still navigating how to handle the new technology’s impact on its staff. Its largest employee union, Professional Engineers in California Government, has expressed concern that vehicle reports could be misconstrued or unfairly limit employees’ movements. The union and Caltrans officials have held meetings to discuss those issues.
It’s impossible to know how much the units will save the state, said Caltrans Deputy Director Steve Takigawa, but 200 vehicles monitored in a department pilot program cut fuel consumption by 16 percent because employees drove better and vehicle maintenance improved.
Caltrans also estimates it will save at least $500,000 each year by ending manual vehicle logs. The figure assumes office staff enters such data, Takigawa said, “but we’ve probably been paying engineers to do office tech work.”
The devices can detect and flag minor irregularities so that mechanics can fix problems before they become catastrophic breakdowns.
The system is so precise that Caltrans can avoid taking its vehicles to smog-check shops. Instead, emissions data tracked by the on-board computer go directly to the state’s Bureau of Automotive Repair for smog certification. If a vehicle doesn’t meet standards, the system flags department mechanics, who can call it in for immediate repair.
One of the units, roughly the size of a cellphone, requires 15 to 30 minutes to install out of sight behind a vehicle’s dashboard. Wires from the device run to a plug-in port and to a sensor the driver activates with an assigned key fob.
Caltrans expects to finish installing the units on the last 500 vehicles in a few weeks.
“We’re not trying to put the fear into our employees,” Takigawa said. “We’re saying that we value our employees, that this is the right thing to do, and that it’s in their interests.”
Still, Caltrans’ largest employee union worries about how some of the data might be interpreted.
“Our main concern is that employees and their supervisors know what’s OK and what isn’t,” said Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government. “If you’re on an assignment in the field for a couple of days and you’re off the clock, can you take (a Caltrans vehicle) to a restaurant for dinner? To a movie?”
The tension over those sorts of judgment calls has always existed, Blanning said, but the new tracking system adds a new level of detail that managers and employees will have to consider when deciding what is an appropriate use of state property.
Automobile-tracking technology heightened labor tensions in Maryland, for example, after unions accused Baltimore County authorities of Big Brother-style management when they installed GPS devices in about 900 county vehicles. That system sent alerts to managers if an employee drove faster than 12 mph over the speed limit, idled excessively or crossed a county line.
While the engineers union doesn’t oppose installing the technology in Caltrans vehicles, the systems have reignited an age-old management-labor debate over a law that says state vehicles are for state business only, Blanning said.
“If you restrict an employee too much, if you say, ‘You can’t leave your hotel,’ then (the state) has to pay them,” Blanning said.
He’s also concerned that the trackers’ detailed reporting, right down to the address where a truck parks, for example, can give an unintended appearance, so employees in monitored vehicles will need take care where they go.
“If you’re getting a candy bar on break, don’t choose a liquor store over a grocery store,” he said. “If you get beer after work, get it at a grocery store. … Avoid the appearance of doing something wrong.”
Telematics – the term of art for the all-seeing computer application in Caltrans vehicles – has been around for well over a decade. It marries global-positioning tools first used by the military many years ago with more recent automated machine-to-machine technology that exploits ubiquitous cellular networks to transmit data.
Dallas-based research and consulting firm MarketsandMarkets estimates the $17 billion global telematics industry will grow past $39 billion by 2019. North America businesses and government will lead the expansion.
“It’s an inevitable trend in fleet management,” said Patrick Connelly, a senior analyst for ABI Research, which tracks technology for investment purposes.
The city of Sacramento installed trackers in its garbage trucks five years ago and eventually expanded the program to all its heavy-duty vehicles, said Keith Leech, the city’s fleet manager.
“We saved 10 percent on fuel, right out of the gate,” Leech said, with other savings coming from lower maintenance costs.
Caltrans is the first state department to install complex telematic systems in its fleet. The Highway Patrol has GPS locators in about 2,500 of its field vehicles, but the data they produce are limited. State law restricts access to CHP vehicle information to locating officers in an emergency, review of a pursuit or when management needs the data for an investigation.
Other state departments with large fleets, including the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, don’t have any GPS technology in their vehicles.
“But we’re getting calls,” said Caltrans Equipment Division Chief Lawrence Orcutt, who is overseeing the Caltrans program.
He predicted other state agencies will follow his department’s lead: “I think word is going to get out.”
The van thief this summer, however, somehow missed the message that Caltrans had installed a device in the vehicle the day before he stole it, despite the large yellow-and-red sticker affixed to the driver’s side window:
“GPS TRACKING DEVICE INSTALLED IN THIS VEHICLE.”
Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.