Part six in a series by James Carter
If there’s one thing is for sure, we in automotive industry – particularly the independent aftermarket – have operated in a pretty siloed world. Our industry has been running relatively unchanged for a long time, and business follows very familiar patterns, from sales, to financing, marketing, logistics and development. Moreover, most of the leading players have been around a long time. They starting to celebrate their 100th anniversaries. They are very familiar names to us by now. So we’ve been conditioned to think a certain way, only looking for new solutions within the boundaries we already operate under.
But I’m here to tell you that the technology that you may have looked at in other contexts and thought “That’s cool!” may actually be directly applicable to your shop in the future. Here are four upcoming technologies that I think have a high chance of a direct future application for the automotive aftermarket.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR / AR)
One of the hardest and most time-consuming jobs that a technician has is how to translate the repair manual instructions into reality. How often have you found that what is required to do the repair doesn’t exactly match what you’re working on? Or you find out the hard way that you have to either retrace your steps or fix a new problem due to missing information? Or you just have difficulty visualising and interpreting what the manual says?
Something like the much-maligned Google Glasses might just do the trick! Google Glasses were a set of odd looking spectacles that super-imposed additional images on one of the lenses with suggested information within your field of view. It could be arrows for navigation, speed limits, restaurant ratings or whatever you found useful. Unfortunately, most people found these pretty weird to wear every day.
This display of additional information to what you already see is called Augmented Reality (AR), and a basic form has been around for a while as “Heads Up” displays in some luxury cars. However today’s AR is far more futuristic and useful. Imagine wearing shop safety glasses where added images guide you through the process of repairing or maintaining vehicles. This could speed up reading the manual, guide you to the source of a problem, suggest the required tools, and allow you to complete the task without having to move away from the vehicle.
Sure, an experienced technician with a narrow speciality may not need it as much, but for an apprentice or anyone learning a new vehicle or system, this would be of huge benefit. It would also suit the digital world that millennials live in, allowing them to become more comfortable with what they are working on, more quickly.
Additionally, Virtual Reality (VR), where a 3D digital image is created for the viewer, would be very helpful in enabling apprentices to better visualize how different vehicle systems work and to allow a preview of a new system prior to being let loose on a vehicle.
You’ve probably heard of BitCoin and other cryptocurrencies that have experienced rapidly fluctuating fortunes. However, it is the technology behind it, a digital crypto solution called Blockchain, that makes them really interesting.
Blockchain was initially designed so that these types of currencies always remain secure, and is based on a digitized and decentralised public ledger with a list of records, or blocks, that are highly resistant to modification. Other blocks can be added to each other in a chain to form a process – hence Blockchain. This creates a highly secure digital structure for payments and transferring sensitive information, and therefore its usefulness extends to any digital application where trust is an issue.
But how can the automotive aftermarket use this? The most immediate application is payments both to the shop and for paying invoices that the shop incurs, especially through non-traditional means, such as apps. While most of today’s payment systems work fine for today’s business, an application for the future might be pay-per-mile maintenance, or where a shared (or soon an autonomous) vehicle may send a maintenance or repair alert, followed by an instant payment to the requested shop.
Blockchain will also be very useful in transferring customer data, or other data that needs to be secure, such as vehicle and driving records; and I could see OEMs requiring crypto protection for transferring service and repair information.
While voice control has been around a while, it has only in the last few years that it has become really useful. Until recently, it wouldn’t understand accents and had only a few basic commands, or skills. They were pretty useless.
But today Amazon Alexa, and other digital assistants have begun to change that, and they’ve become really popular. Their recognition abilities are pretty good and the things they can search for is much more comprehensive.
Imagine the application for the shop – you’re working on a vehicle and need some tools;
“Alexa Toolbox, pass me the 12mm socket, as well as a multimeter.”
Your voice operated toolbox immediately selects the correct tools and passes them to you on a small tray.
It also may be useful for paperwork automation and administration.
“Alexa, close out the repair order.”
“Alexa, find the electronic service manual for a 2023 Jeep Wrangler Hybrid.”
We may start to hear these kind of commands in the shop of the future.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
What if your toolbox and digital shop assistant already knew what to do before the vehicle even arrived? As artificial intelligence greatly expands its usefulness, it is highly likely that an AI system will be able to diagnose a problem much more quickly and accurately.
Artificial intelligence, and derivatives like ‘Deep Learning’ and ‘Machine Learning’ use highly complex programs to sort very large amounts of data and look for patterns. In industrial applications, such programs are used to pin-point faults in manufacturing and production lines, enabling much faster problem identification and rectification.
In our world, having a centralized repair and maintenance record of many different vehicles will create a data set that an AI system can use. A vehicle’s onboard diagnostics can be entered as inputs and therefore enable such a system to quickly isolate a fault. From there, it could order required parts, pull up an appropriate instruction manual, pre-select appropriate tools and schedule a technician according to the labour hours required, all before the vehicle has even arrived at the shop!
The shop of the future is going to be a very exciting place, and many new systems will be introduced that we’ll wonder how we ever lived without.
These technologies, which may seem like a narrow-use case in a different industry today, will likely have strong application and benefit to the automotive aftermarket. Interestingly, three of the four technologies highlighted above have the ability to streamline and improve shop process, leading to cost reductions and improved customer satisfaction. And those are strengths that the Automotive Aftermarket already displays, which will allow it to maintain an edge in future automotive repair and maintenance. While these technologies may not be commercially available for your shop today, I suggest keeping a look out for these, and others, that could improve efficiency and future adaptability for your business.
James Carter is principal consultant at Vision Mobility, a Toronto-based consultancy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to follow James’ insights on LinkedIn.