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Supplier Technology: IBM

IBM’s telematic solutions will allow OEMs to reduce warranty repair costs and improve customer satisfaction.

The Celestica-built ‘black box’ collects data from the vehicle’s onboard computers.
You may have seen the television commercial. A woman answers her door and a young appliance repairman says, “I’m here to fix your refrigerator.” “It’s not broken,” she replies. “It isn’t yet,” he grins back.

Imagine if your dealer could call you to tell you that your car was going to have a problem and repair it before it became a problem. It’s not nearly as farfetched as you might think. Today’s automobile is a computer on wheels, with as many as 30 to 140 electronic control units collecting data and talking to one another across the vehicle’s local area network. A new IBM technology will enable all of that data to be uploaded to a central server where it can be analyzed and put to valuable use for both OEMs and consumers.

“Increasing warranty costs are a huge issue in the industry,” says James S. Ruthven, program director for IBM telematic solutions. “Any information you can get on how the vehicles are performing will help diagnose the problem and more effectively address the issue of warranty costs.”

The heart of the IBM system is a small eDevice or ‘black box’ designed by IBM and manufactured by Celestica of Toronto, Canada. The unit is installed in the vehicle and captures data from all of the onboard computers. The data is transmitted via a wireless network to a vehicle data repository where it can be analyzed by IBM technicians who will extract and store any data specified by the customer. It can be used for continual analysis where technicians look for trends that might point to specific problems. Customized programs can also be written to monitor the performance of specific areas of the automobile.

Once a database is built, the OEMs can mine that data to help them pinpoint how vehicles behave under certain conditions, helping them to avoid future problems.

Just this year, Chrysler completed a pilot program with IBM wherein 150 Chrysler minivans were equipped with e-devices. During the four-month program Chrysler rooted out four potential problems. “In fact,” says Don Dees, vice president of quality for DaimlerChrysler, “we had one case where we expected a problem to happen from the information the computer was telling us. We called the driver and asked him to bring the vehicle into our Quality Engineering Center. We predicted that he was going to have a failure. Dees says that all four problems were software related.

“It’s a pretty big challenge for an industry that’s not really used to dealing with software,” says Ruthven. “They’re finding that most of the issues they’re having from a reliability standpoint come from electronics and software and they’re struggling with that.” But let’s say you don’t get a call from your dealer to bring your vehicle in before it breaks. The data stored onboard the vehicle can help the service technician pinpoint the problem and fix it right the first time. Dees says that today all that the service technician has is a failure code.

“With this system,” says Dees, “you’ll have all of the information that you can give a technician at the dealership so they will know exactly what happened to the car before it failed.” Dees says that the biggest benefit of the pilot program was learning that the driving patterns of some of their customers were different than originally thought.

“That will help us calibrate better and avoid problems,” says Dees.

Chrysler plans on running another test later this year using the Chrysler Pacifica. “It’s a huge opportunity for us as a company to get in front of this thing,” says Dees. Dees sees the IBM system as a great tool for reducing warranty costs.

“I think it’s the future,” he adds. “I think it’s where the industry’s going to head as cell phones get better and the communications technology gets better and cheaper.” “It will really help in solving the ‘needle in a haystack’ quality problems that you have now with the integration of software, electrical and mechanical,” Dees says.

While the diagnostic capabilities of the system may be of most interest to the OEMs, the value of the data goes well beyond that. “We (IBM) tend to think that telematics got started in the wrong place,” says Ruthven. “Telematics got started with the notion that consumers will pay anywhere from $20 to $80 a month, on a subscriber basis, to download personalized news, weather, stocks and sports.”

Ruthven thinks that there’s much more to telematics than that.

“Using the information about where the vehicles are and how they’re performing can deliver value to others as well,” he says. In March 2003, IBM signed a deal with Norwich Union, the U.K.’s largest general insurer, to provide technology and telecommunications for a ‘Pay As You Drive’ insurance program. Under the program, customers who allow their driving habits to be monitored will be rewarded with a lower premium. Some 5,000 volunteers will participate in the two-year pilot program starting this year.

The data gathered from the vehicle can also be used to develop customized fleet management programs.

“Fleet owners can utilize a system like this,” says IBM Researcher W. Nathaniel Mills, “because availability of vehicles is key to the success of their business. IBM’ s system will not only do a better job of finding and fixing problems, but can also schedule regular maintenance based on the vehicles usage, through prognostic data instead of time, helping fleet owner’s better schedule their vehicles.”

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