Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2012   by Noelle Stapinsky

Constant Contact

Breakthrough telematics technology will help independent shops level the playing field in car care diagnostics and spice up customer relations

Today, everyone can pretty much do it anywhere they please — at work, in the car or even while they wait for an oil change. Access the Internet, that is.

With the explosion of smartphones and tablets, all tethered to data networks, a world of information and communication is at our fingertips 24/7, dramatically changing the way we work, shop and play. And on the service shop floor, it isn’t much different. Technicians are using mobile technology to access databases and online resources for vehicle diagnostics. They’re also accessing online training, ordering parts and purchasing tools.

But with the constant advancements in automotive technology — many new vehicles have more than 40 processors running various elements under the hood and in the cabin — OEs are rolling vehicles off the assembly line equipped with embedded telematics technology that employ proprietary coding, making it increasingly difficult for techs to keep up.

What began as a suite of services and technology for safety, convenience and entertainment — the oldest example being General Motor’s OnStar — has evolved into remote vehicle diagnostics and maintenance management. “Since these technologies are built into the vehicle at the factory, there’s little question about where that information is sent. When the vehicles ‘call home,’ they’re calling the dealer network or the OE car companies,” says Scott Luckett, vice-president of technology standards and CIO for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). “From the perspective of the aftermarket, it’s potentially a rather ominous threat and an opportunity for the relationship an owner has with their vehicle.”

Ben Johnson, director of product management for Mitchell 1, says, “The OEs strategy around telematics is to bring the vehicle to the dealership. They’d love it if the driver believed the aftermarket is no longer capable of servicing the vehicle.”

For the AAIA, coming up with an aftermarket telematics solution is not about getting into the business of dispatching ambulances and tow trucks, or providing satellite radio and navigation services, but to give independent shops an alternative to OE-based telematics and to give the vehicle owner the freedom to decide with whom their vehicle communicates for maintenance and service needs.

Although OE embedded telematics have been somewhat successful in driving business back to their dealerships, Johnson says, “I’ve talked to a lot of aftermarket shops that say the strategy has backfired a bit because customers will bring in their reports to their preferred shop. It’s becoming a tool for the consumer as well. Certainly the optimal solution for the aftermarket would be if their customer could elect to have that data routed to them, much like if I get an iPhone and choose which network provider I want.”

If aftermarket shops could gain access to their customers’ vehicle telematics, they could strengthen their customer relationship, and, more importantly, be able to diagnose engine issues long before the car shows up in the shop bay. For the past couple of years, the AAIA and its members have demonstrated how the aftermarket could use telematics on the AAPEX floor. To take it even further, AAIA launched the inaugural Aftermarket Telematics Challenge — a competition that challenged companies to provide a telematics device for the aftermarket industry that will be commercially viable.

Indeed, the easiest way to retrofit a vehicle with a telematics device is through the OBDII port under the driving console. Many companies have developed such devices; most notably the ones used by insurance companies such Progressive’s Snapshot, which plugs into the vehicle’s OBDII port to monitor driving behaviour for user-based insurance rates. But since this port was designed for vehicle diagnostics, the trick for the aftermarket would be to develop a device that is not only capable of monitoring the vehicle, but also allowing remote diagnostics without putting the onboard computer system solely in a diagnostic mode.

And the winner of the first Aftermarket Telematics Challenge, announced at this year’s AAPEX, did just that. In a joint proposal, submitted by Delphi Products and Service Solutions (DPSS) and Aftermarket Telematics Technologies (ATT), the DPSS Connect Car Telematics Solution gives independent service providers the capabilities to compete in the market.

“Delphi with ATT demonstrated a carefully executed solution offering value and benefits to every link in the service chain from the parts manufacturer to the consumer,” says Luckett. “In fact, the solution succeeds in educating consumers to the benefits of regular vehicle maintenance.”

Delphi engineered an OBDII plug-in device that’s powered by ATT’s suite of software solutions. “The device has been successfully road-tested over 50 million miles in tens of thousands of vehicles,” says Lúcia Veiga Moretti, DPSS president. “ATT provides the vehicle owner and service operator a web interface to view vehicle history and alerts, as well as accessing parts and service information from Delphi.”

Moretti continues: “Think about this as a device that works like a computer, GPS and a scan tool all-in-one. Imagine as a car owner having a direct connection with your technicians. With this telematics device, the technician can tell you when you need a maintenance repair with a simple email or text message. Or if your car breaks down, the technician will know where you are, can dispatch a tow-truck and have the part ready for the repair.”

If the check engine light comes on, which can happen for a thousand different reasons, a trouble code can be sent to a shop’s management system and a tech can notify the customer by text or email to check that the gas cap isn’t loose. If that’s not the issue, they could do a remote sensor sweep to see what might be failing. And the beauty of having such connectivity with the owner and the vehicle, says Jim Dykstra, president of ATT, “it is the car selling the service to the vehicle owner, telling them what it needs, and tying the vehicle owner to the shop and its service technicians.”

And independent shops can also capitalize on this technology by using it to create a personalized maintenance schedule for customers. With such technology, technicians can now understand if the car is being driven in a normal or severe fashion and if it needs new tires or it’s ready for an oil change, for example. “With telematics, there are marketing dollars that everyone has to spend to attract customers and get them in for service. Right now we’re doing it in a shotgun approach, but this is like a laser scope on a sniper rifle,” says Luckett.

The make this technology economically viable, shop owners need to start talking to their suppliers, distribution groups and banner headquarters. To stay competitive with OE dealerships, it’s essential they too have an alternative to offer their customers. But according to Luckett, the roll out of this technology is going to require mass in order to get the cost down.

With innovative solutions, such as the Delphi Connected Car, the ultimate cost will be determined by how many people in the supply chain want to co-op it and spend their marketing dollars, but the subscription service for the vehicle owner could be under $10 per month.

For shop owners to get their customers on board, Luckett says, “Not many car owners will go out of their way to spend money so that Joe’s garage can be notified of a problem. That’s not a strong value proposition. But as a car owner, if I knew there was a website I could go to and see my driving history, what kind of fuel economy I’m getting and monitor my children’s driving, that’s where the aftermarket can capitalize on telematics. Shops can provide customers with peace of mind and convenience without spending a lot of money.”

Let’s face it, consumers want to be connected and with smartphones in almost every pocket, accessing a customer base has never been easier. For an independent shop to offer such a device also means that customers with older vehicles don’t have to spend $40,000 on a new vehicle to get the same capabilities and connectivity. With such a simple plug and play device, shops will be able to optimize their maintenance programs, while serving OEs with a healthy dose of competition.