Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2001   by Andrew Ross


While the aftermarket has spoken in awe about the computing technology in today's cars, that microprocessor power has been limited to operating and controlling vehicle systems--essentially turning it into a very smart, mobile appliance. You could no more perform a business transaction using the OBD II system than you could ask your microwave oven to pay your credit card balance. But the advent of mobile computing is changing that, in ways too numerous to count and too diverse to predict.

Palm Pilots with Internet access, car stereos with more accessible computing power than the moon shot, navigation systems that can point and direct even the most directionally challenged among us are just a few examples.

Modern wireless technology crosses all boundaries and categories; business tools double as entertainment media; entertainment media double as information sources; information sources double as games. The tools of the wireless world refuse to be tied down in more ways than just one, and they have the potential to change everything about the way we communicate with our customers and each other.

At the Cellular Telecommunications Industries Associa-tion’s “Wireless 2000” event in February of 2000, Bill Gates characterized the portability of computing power as perhaps the most important development of the computing world from both a business and social aspect.

“I think wireless is probably the key component that’s really going to take the scenarios of empowerment that we’ve always believed in and make them a reality,” Gates said in his address to the conference. “The idea now that we can take the voice world, the data world, and let people access that stuff from any size screen, anywhere they want to go, that’s an incredible opportunity.

“There’s a great rate of change here, and then you can go back to the excitement of the PC and how that really stunned everybody, the excitement of the Internet and how that really stunned everybody. Well, here we’re talking about this multi-device era where it’s the phone, it’s the TV set, it’s the car, it’s the PC, all those things working together. Even though people have seen those amazing things in the past, I think they’re going to be totally surprised by the kind of new companies, the new opportunities, perhaps most importantly how empowering for people, this is all going to be.”

Heady talk for a man whose software helped tie people to their desks. And, while the laptop computer may have given us all a degree of mobility, most of us still go looking for a connection when we want to transmit or receive information. Well, hang onto your dongle: the wireless revolution has the potential to change everything about the way people use their cars and where they access information.

Clarion’s AutoPC is a leading example. Yes, it’s a high-end sound system, but that’s just the beginning. Using the Windows CE operating system, you can access your e-mail, get directions, check on road conditions, get a weather report and myriad other functions with the addition of other items.

A CarPort package from Vetronix–the same company that produces diagnostic tools–uses the AutoPC to access diagnostic data from the car’s systems, including profiles of engine RPM and vehicle speeds, and it can track vehicle expenses, too. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this can change both the way a consumer uses his car and the way the technician accesses information to service it.

Visteon’s Information, Communication, Entertainment and Security system (ICES) lets drivers use verbal commands to check e-mail, schedules, look up phone numbers, and make calls without taking their hands off the steering wheel or their eyes off the road. In both cases, however, the computing power stays with the car when you get out.

Delphi’s Mobile Productivity Center is different from these in-dash solutions. It links a Palm Pilot to a cellphone for mobility, but this still allows users to take the Palm Pilot and its computing power with them. With this system, you can access your e-mail and have it read to you. Your reply is captured as a sound bite that can be accessed by the recipient. What they would get at the other end is a digital recording of your answer. Of course, you could always just ask the system to call the sender and speak to them by phone, but it certainly changes the way we view what we can accomplish in our cars.

Matt Swanston, manager of communications for Consumer Electronics Association, says that the lines are blurring between work and personal time and that this is an important driving factor in the growth of the mobile computing, wireless area.

“It’s what we call a lifestyle-workstyle shift. They want to have access like they have at home all the time. Your life is becoming complicated enough that you can use a cellphone to coordinate your family schedule as well as have conversations with customers.

“We’re seeing the development of rear seat entertainment and navigation systems for people who travel and then a whole slew of products to allow people to be productive.

“The second thing is that people are spending more time in their cars. Commuting is taking longer and longer. Kids have much more structured activities. You don’t see kids riding their bikes around at dusk like we did. They’re at soccer practice, swimming lessons, etc. Overall people are spending much more time in their cars, so the technologies are helping people either be more entertained or productive or both.”

The impact of wireless technology is just beginning to be felt in the consumer’s world today with Internet access on cellphones and a few wireless pocket gadgets, and is about to be felt more keenly in the world of automotive service. Just about everything in the jobber’s place of business and the garage is structured around the need for wires. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself why a diagnostic machine is on wheels. Or why you still have a counter when you’re moving to electronic cataloging. Why do service advisors have a counter in front of them? Imagine a service advisor or technician being able to greet a customer in the parking lot, log a work order using a pocket computer, and perform a diagnostic trouble code check by hooking up a couple of connectors to the vehicle while it’s still in the parking lot.

Imagine no more, because every part of this is available today.

Delphi’s ATRisys system, developed in conjunction with Automotive Technical Resources, Inc., offers technicians a wireless diagnostic and business solution. Already tested in pilot programs, the ATRisys handheld unit resembles a scan tool, but communicates with a desktop unit via a wireless connection and can be equipped to perform every computer function from business to technical.

“The biggest advantage of the wireless system is placing it where the technician needs it when he needs it, which is at the car, on the fender, or under the dashboard,” says Mark Theriot, director of global service technologies for Delphi.

“Management functions and full interactive training are all available, but the real differentiation here is that when I’m under the dash and, say, I forget how to use my DVOM to test for something, I can press a button. Training now becomes an option for the technician.” And, from that same location, the technician can access tech bulletins, recall notices, specifications and, if his shop is so equipped, place an order for parts with an online parts provider.

Theriot says that one test facility said that the time savings alone were significant.

“He referred to the ‘walk of death,'” says Theriot referring to the time it takes for the technician to leave the job, go to his paper or computer resources to look something up and then get back to the car and crawl under the dash once more. “I equate it to manufacturing. They try very hard to take steps out. While the repair shop would not be the first place to think of that, every time you leave the job, it takes 10 minutes to look for a tool or information. If I do that 10 times a day that’s more than an hour and a half.”

The system, in combination with the EASE Diagnostics Wireless Vehicle Interface (WVI), makes the possibilities for highly efficient and more comfortable diagnostics great.

The WVI, which works with the ATRisys system, allows diagnostic procedures to be run without having the diagnostic tool connected physically to the vehicle. Instead, it uses a small transmitter and a receiver to communicate with the car.

“It’s a matter of convenience and speed,” says Tom Pratt, who works in sales for EASE.

“First off, for high volume sho
ps it’s going to get you into a car that you can’t get into the bay.

“So at least they will be able to access the diagnostics. It was first developed for customer satisfaction–to avoid customer waiting–so it’s a matter of making things efficient so that people aren’t so adverse to getting service.”

He says that, for the shops, it improves accessibility to the car–which could also be a benefit in poor weather conditions–and Pratt says that he can even envision some applications for the jobber. A car owner could pull up and a counterperson could hook up a transmitter and check what the problem was. “It all boils down to communication, without the hindrance of cables.

“It’s the way of the future. We’re in the information age, and now we’re in the wireless stage.”

The possibilities for consumers and the trade seem endless and there are many questions. How, for example, would a shop owner react to a customer calling to say that he has a certain trouble code on his car and would he be able to have a look? Or how about a customer e-mailing him the same query? What happens when the customer’s car has more diagnostic power than a repair garage?

Add in telematics–the technology of allowing service data and faults to be downloaded on the move and, potentially, to have fixes uploaded to the vehicle (in a sort of high-octane version of the On Star system)–and the potential impact on vehicle service and customer service is astounding, not just in terms of how, but of who. (When On Star detects a problem, who do they send you to? Joe’s Garage? Not likely.)

Not everything will change, though.

“The one thing to realize,” says Theriot, ” is that technology is not a panacea. It will never replace the technician in the garage, but we can make his job much easier. It can help him diagnose the problem quicker and help him to fix the problem right the first time, and that’s our real goal.”

“Is there any end to it?” asks Matt Swantson. “Ultimately the technology will continue to develop to meet consumer demand indefinitely. The consumer electronics industry will provide more and more for less and less money, just as they have for the home.

“The significant difference in the car is that you may have an unlimited amount of time, but you don’t have an unlimited amount of attention. The limiting factor is the amount of things you can get into the car without diverting the driver from his task at hand. That is the key for the industry.”

Swanston admits that it is tempting for lawmakers to try and legislate safety measures–hand free cellphone access for example–but adds that people’s attention has long been diverted by radio dials, noisy children, and many other factors. “Everyone has seen people shaving and reading and putting on makeup. All of that is irresponsible, but you can’t really legislate behavior.”

He uses the issue of navigation systems as an example. “The screen in the front may be a distraction, but the alternative is being lost or trying to look at a folded-up paper map, and that’s infinitely more dangerous than having a system saying that you have 20 feet before you need to turn left.

“Ultimately the amount of attention you pay to your driving is your responsibility. But the consumer electronics industry is trying to ensure that the products are safe to use and installed in a way that is safe.”

Swanston says that it is important to realize that we’re not talking about the Car of the Future here.

In an effort to get these technologies in front of consumers, not long ago he toured television stations and shows with a car equipped with in-car infotainment systems and rear seat video screens etc. “In their stories the reporters invariably called it the car of the future. All this stuff is here now, today. People are constantly surprised by that.”

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