It’s not often that a federal employee has to drink on the job.
But on occasion, researchers at the Volpe transportation center in Cambridge do have to imbibe a bit — all in the name of science, of course — as they test devices meant to measure blood alcohol content.
These days the Volpe seems better known for the property it occupies than the work done inside. The 14-acre complex sits in the middle of booming Kendall Square, its expanse of surface parking lots and underused space surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate on the East Coast.
There’s such high interest in the Volpe that on Monday at least eight major real estate firms responded to the federal government’s request to have a private builder construct a new transportation research center in exchange for redevelopment rights to the rest of the site.
The proposed redevelopment has sparked intense debate about issues such as building heights and affordable housing on the site — but what happens inside the Volpe is rarely discussed. For decades, the Department of Transportation facility has conducted research that plays a key role in determining how people and things move about the world, yet that work has mostly flown under the radar.
“Volpe has been a mystery,” said Robert Johns, the center’s director. “There’s a lack of awareness of what happens behind the walls here.”
The Volpe’s work spans a huge range of transportation topics, from bicycle traffic on Cape Cod to US fuel-efficiency standards, to road infrastructure in Liberia. The staff of more than 1,000 — including 500 or so contractors — consists of planners and engineers, as well as economists, environmental scientists, and industrial psychologists.
They work in a six-building complex that dates to the 1960s and was originally constructed for NASA. Volpe officials say they would need to significantly renovate the space if they are not able to build a new center.
In one lab, for example, engineers use bulky simulators to study how drivers respond if their cars accelerate uncontrollably, and how much time train operators spend looking at the track. More space, better configured, could open up new opportunities for research — such as a new simulator for drone operators, officials said.
The federal government is in the early stages of selecting a developer to fund construction of a new state-of-the-art transportation research center on just 3 or 4 acres of the property. After that, the developer would be given the rest of the land for other projects.
As part of the process, the Cambridge City Council is considering zoning changes that would allow mixed-use development on site. Plans could include a tower on the property, and 1,000 units of housing.
Though it’s a federal research center, the Volpe does not receive direct government funding. Instead, it acts as a consultant for local, state, and federal agencies, and some private companies, bringing in between $275 million and $300 million each year.
The Volpe’s researchers work on projects for the National Park Service, the World Bank, and the military, as well as for transportation agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration.
The projects span the globe: In the mid-2000s, a team at the Volpe developed a network that’s now used to track commercial ships in real time, from a tugboat on the Mississippi River to an ocean liner sailing across the Atlantic. A screen at the Volpe shows a world map dotted with thousands of blips representing ships; hover over one with a mouse and its size, call sign, and other details pop up.
The network, known as the Maritime Safety and Security Information System, has been adapted to help agencies fight trafficking and piracy. The technology can also track “the most flagrant violator” in marine areas that restrict boat speeds to protect whales, said Kam Chin, chief of situational awareness and logistics.
These days, many Volpe researchers focus on the transportation of the future. Vehicle engineers used to study air bags and seat belts; now they’re examining how crash avoidance systems affect driving patterns. Can having too many warning systems, for example, overwhelm a driver?
Then there’s the alcohol countermeasures lab, which scrutinizes devices that read the alcohol levels of drivers and pilots. The researchers have designed a simulator that mimics human breath — but on rare occasions, someone does have to drink to test devices that measure alcohol in saliva.
It’s a funny quirk of the job, but the work has serious consequences. New devices are assessed under a range of conditions — at different temperatures and altitudes and with breaths of varying force —and have to remain accurate to earn approval for use, said Ed Conde, the lab’s program manager.
“We fail almost all devices that come through here,” he said.