The federal government is taking a number of steps to promote auto-safety technology in the U.S., but there is one area that may be getting overlooked: its own fleet of vehicles.
Regulators are working to expand the prevalence of collision-avoidance systems and other semi-autonomous features in cars, which have been praised for their ability to save lives, reduce traffic and improve fuel use.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is expected to release guidance for states on self-driving vehicles later this summer.
The agency is also expected to release a rule this year that would require all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, a system that would enable driverless cars to talk to one another in order to anticipate sudden moves and avoid crashes.
But while regulators champion the life-saving technology in the U.S., some safety advocates want to see the government lead by a better example.
“Clearly, it’s a rich opportunity for the government to have these vehicles equipped with this new technology,” said Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “I think the federal government should have its own fleet as a test fleet in a way, to see how these systems work and do an evaluation.”
Only 715 out of 210,000, or less than 1 percent, of the vehicles that the General Services Administration (GSA) leases to federal agencies have crash-avoidance technology, according to a spokeswoman.
The GSA and NHTSA had formed a partnership to test and evaluate potential vehicle safety devices on GSA-leased vehicles in order to improve safety across the government’s fleet.
The rest of the federal fleet is agency owned or commercially leased, but Mobileye, a leading provider of collision-avoidance and self-driving car technology, believes the rest of the vehicles are outfitted at similarly low rates.
The company, which just became a GSA-approved vendor earlier this year, points out that the U.S. Postal Service agreed to spend $6.3 billion dollars on a brand new modern fleet of vehicles but made no mention of crash-avoidance features in its request for proposals.
“The government supports the adoption of crash avoidance in our nation’s vehicles,” said Uri Tamir, Mobileye’s director of strategic initiatives. “But for some reason, we still do not see the adoption of collision avoidance in the government’s own vehicles.”
Although fully driverless cars are still years away, semi-autonomous features are already being used by a number of vehicles on the market now, including automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection, parking assistance, lane-keeping, and front-crash prevention.
An increasing number of states and cities are using vehicles equipped with safety systems. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently announced that hundreds of buses will begin testing new collision alert systems as part of a pilot program later this year.
But the technology comes at a price. Most vehicles on the market that have semi-autonomous features are typically bundled with other expensive luxury items.
Vehicles already owned by the federal government could be retrofitted with advanced driver assistance systems, which would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mobileye argues that the benefits of collision avoidance go beyond safety: fewer crashes mean less money spent on accidents and insurance premiums.
Still, federal agencies may need a nudge to move in that direction, as it did with safety features like seatbelts and airbags in the 1960s.
Lawmakers could also step in by adding language to annual spending legislation that would require all federal vehicles to be installed with crash-avoidance technology.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has signaled some interest in the issue, urging the Postal Service to consider market-ready crash-avoidance technologies and asking what role Congress could play in fleet safety improvements.
“Investing in proven safety technologies to reduce the rate of expensive accidents in the USPS fleet should be a priority,” Booker wrote in a letter to the Postal Service last year. “The United States is a world leader in innovation and we have an opportunity to integrate cutting-edge technical solutions to improve service to the public, increase safety and ultimately savings.”