Technology Goes On The Road
An automobile club uses handheld computers and wide area network (WAN) to provide better service to members whose cars break down.
Business Solutions, February 1998
Obviously, a fail-safe and efficient method of communication between the Club's service center and member drivers is vital. Otherwise, the Club could not respond quickly to emergency calls. When the center is called, the center's controller needs to determine which repair vehicle is closest to the breakdown. The controller then needs to relay information to the driver of that vehicle about the caller's location and the nature of the breakdown.
How The Old System Worked
The system previously used to contact the repair vehicle drivers, who were issued laptop data terminals, was via standard private voice radio network. "The trouble with this way of working," says Jo Engelen, operations manager at the Club, "was that the laptops weren't connected to our central system. In addition, job details on past repairs could only be uploaded to the central system every two or three weeks." (Each repair vehicle driver was required to return to the home office every two to three weeks.) In addition, in some parts of the country, transmission problems were commonplace. As a result, difficulties understanding each other were endemic. Because of these problems, officials of the Flemish Automobile Club concluded that it needed a more efficient and reliable communications system.
How The New System Works
The Club had already chosen RAM Mobile Data's Mobitex network for data communication. It then wanted to incorporate into its existing fleet of repair vehicles a gateway system to integrate with its existing dispatching system.
The solution chosen includes Psion Workabout handheld computers, with LCD and alphanumeric keyboard, combined with Ericsson Mobidem radios and Psion V-Comm units with vehicle data-acquisition electronics. The Workabout is mounted on the dashboard of each vehicle in a docking holster. Power and communications are provided by a Psion V-Comm device which is connected to an Ericsson Mobitex radio. In order to alert the driver to incoming messages, an extra buzzer was also installed as part of the system.
The Benefits Realized By The New System
For the Flemish Automobile Club, the real benefit has come from better communications between the drivers and the service center. When a call comes into the center, job details are downloaded immediately to the appropriate driver via the handheld's LCD. The driver can then access the central system to check further details if necessary. Drivers can also immediately upload job status information when the repair call is complete, so the controller knows what is going on.
Jules Verhoeven, the Club's information technology manager, is happy with the system. He says, "Time has been won by our people in the field and the coordinators at the service center. This time is now being used for other services to our members. Furthermore, we now have a better picture of the time between an incoming call and the arrival at the service location." Jo Engelen adds: "The drivers have found the new system easy to use. Those who have not yet received their Workabout keep calling me to ask when it will be fitted."
Future development of the system will include the addition of extra features in the VAR-generated software. These additions will deal with picking up replacement cars and the automatic addition of new members into the system. Another peripheral under consideration includes a magnetic card reader to allow for credit card validation and the spot enrollment of new members.