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New York City: The man behind 29,000 vehicles

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Keith Kerman, New York City’s first chief fleet officer, has big targets to meet: create the largest EV fleet of any US city by 2025 and help end traffic fatalities and major injuries on New York’s streets. 

Think your fleet is high profile? Try being the boss of the New York City (NYC) Fleet. Collectively, NYC’s 50 agencies, including NYPD (New York City Police Department) and FDNY (New York City Fire Department), operate 29,000 vehicles – making the NYC Fleet the largest municipal fleet in America with an annual spend of $808 million (£619m). 

NYC Fleet has 37 workshops, 420 fuelling sites, 841 parking locations and more than 2,000 full-time staff. The man at the helm, who is responsible for supporting the 50 City agency fleets, is Keith Kerman, chief fleet officer of NYC Fleet and deputy commissioner of New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

“Fleet has a brand that is well-known in New York City,” Kerman says. “I can’t turn on the TV without seeing one of our vehicles.”

And if he walks into a toy store he is greeted with miniature models of NYPD and FDNY vehicles. “They are among the most popular toys in the country,” he adds. 

The chief fleet officer position was created in 2011 to get the 50 fleet agencies to work together and share services, with Kerman plucked from his role managing the City parks (including their fleet function) to take on the project.  

He now has a key part to play in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to improve road safety, known as ‘Vision Zero’.

“It’s an effort to try and end traffic fatalities and major injuries on New York’s streets,” Kerman explains.

Approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours – but as part of Vision Zero, NYC Fleet has committed to a series of steps to improve safety. 

Using fleet management software (Fleet Focus) it has developed a comprehensive collision tracking system called Crash, which records collisions and evaluation reports, along with repair records, for each of the
50 agencies. 

In 2014, there were eight fatalities involving NYC Fleet vehicles but last year there were none. Injuries also fell from 695 to 633, while the number of incidents classed as ‘preventable’ fell from 3,139 to 3,015. 

Even so, NYC Fleet (excluding NYPD) had more than 6,133 collisions in 2015 and collisions still result in substantial costs. Last year alone, NYC Fleet spent $150 million (£115m) in collisions-related claims and litigations, mostly for personal injury. 

As part of Vision Zero, NYC Fleet is using a combination of safety technology and training to tackle accidents. 

It has fitted side guards to 500 of its trucks to help protect pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and is looking at the wider use of cameras and specifying autonomous emergency braking (AEB). Kerman strongly believes that AEB has huge potential as 50% of the fleet’s accidents are currently rear-end collisions. 

“I am more excited about AEB than I am about driverless cars,” he announces. “We can take AEB today and worry about the rest later.”

He is also in the process of rolling out telematics to the entire fleet, which he admits has not been “the most popular initiative” among drivers. “We have had some interesting drama,” he adds. 

More than 22,000 of the fleet’s vehicles already have telematics installed. As well as tracking the vehicle’s location, the device measures more than 20 indicators, including speed, seatbelt use and harsh acceleration or braking.  In common with many fleet operators that use telematics, Kerman says there is “more data than we know what to do with” and he has recently signed a deal with Columbia University to help analyse it.

NYC Fleet is training all of its 35,000 non-emergency fleet drivers in defensive driving. Since 2014, more than 30,000 drivers have been through the one-day course, which focuses on actual City collisions and how to prevent them. 

In addition, an educational video called  ‘Drive Like Your Family Lives Here’ has been produced by NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, Families for Safe Streets, Transportation Alternatives and the New York City Department of Transportation to tell the stories of five families whose lives have been devastated by traffic crashes.

“It brings home the reality that these things happen, they change lives and we can prevent that,” Kerman says. 

NYC Fleet has taken a firm stance on the use of hands-free phones with Mayor de Blasio introducing a ban in City fleet operations in May this year as research shows hands-free phone use while driving can be just as distracting as a hand-held phone or texting.

To increase the adoption of Vision Zero, NYC Fleet is partnering with private and public fleets that operate in the five New York boroughs.

It has set up a Vision Zero Fleets Safety Forum for fleet operators to meet and discuss safety initiatives. At the second forum in October last year more than 50 companies endorsed Vision Zero. The event also saw NYC Fleet hand out ‘good operator’ awards to City fleet safe drivers. The next safety forum will take place in November this year. 

NYC also involves private fleets by carrying out surveys to get feedback on safety and general fleet operations. More than 10,000 surveys have been conducted with private fleets and NYC fleet operators in the past two years.

A key finding was that 61% believe backup (reversing) cameras are the most important equipment for improving safety (compared to a backup alert system, navigational system, driver alert system, additional mirrors and spotlights/strobe lights/work lights). 

Mayor de Blasio’s targets for fleet extend beyond safety. Last December he set out an equally ambitious environmental agenda, under the banner NYC Clean Fleet. It sets a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fleet operations by 50% by 2025 (against 2005 levels) and an 80% reduction by 2035 – equivalent to planting 6,000 trees.

The initiative will see 2,000 electric vehicles (EVs) added to the fleet by 2025, which will make NYC the largest EV fleet of any US city.

NYC Fleet is already one of America’s most sustainable fleets with more than 7,000 alternative fuel vehicles, including hybrids, EVs, biodiesel (blends of 5%, 10% and 20%) and compressed natural gas (CNG).

Of the 50 agencies, NYPD has the largest number of alternative fuel vehicles and Kerman quips that an electric police car is “the nicest way to go to jail”. 

NYC operates 274 EV charging points, including a solar electric car port, which can charge three EVs. “It’s not cheap but EVs weren’t cheap to start with,” Kerman says, pointing out that the price of a Nissan Leaf in America has dropped by $16,000 (£12,000) in the past few years. 

He acknowledges that he can’t yet prove the return on investment for pure EVs for maintenance and resale value as he is only in year three of tracking costs but NYC Fleet has been operating hybrid vehicles since 1999 and the maintenance costs are 30-40% better. 

As part of NYC Clean Fleet, NYC is also using technologies such as start-stop and anti-idling in trucks and ambulances, and trialling higher blends of biodiesel. 

It reports on fuel economy of newly purchased light and medium duty vehicles (a requirement by local law) and has already achieved above the Federal target of 35.6mpg for 2016. The 884 vehicles purchased this year have an average of 55mpg, with an order of 112 Nissan Leafs playing a big part.

NYC Fleet also tracks actual fuel economy, and while “nothing meets ‘the sticker’ ”, according to Kerman, hybrids perform better than conventional fuel vehicles. “When we invest in hybrids they work”, he says.  “Fifteen years ago, alternative fuel vehicles were not on people’s radar. I’m hoping in 15 more years we get to zero as standard.”

■ Keith Kerman was speaking at the Future Fleet Forum, organised by Local Authority Plant and Vehicles.

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