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Information Overload?: New Data Collection Tools Can Help Dealers – But at a Price

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When a telephone installer in Canton, Ohio, leaves his service truck, his boss back at headquarters knows. If the installer moves more than 100 yards from his truck, the boss knows that, too. If that installer checks out his son’s baseball game, the boss can ‘see’ the company’s service truck parked at the ball field, thanks to a satellite GPS monitoring system. Result: Installer fired.

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In today’s high-tech world, no one is truly out of Big Brother’s sight. You leave a data trail behind when surfing the Web, shopping, dining out, making phone calls, listening to satellite radio and even driving in your car. Yes, even your car spies on you.

Did you just have a near collision? Are you speeding? Did you just make a suspicious lane change? When was the last time you changed the oil? Your car knows.

Innovation or Invasion?

Some of this information can be used to your advantage if you’re a tire retailer. For example, if a customer says his tires wore out prematurely, but the onboard computer reveals that the car has been operated at extremely high speeds, the tires have been curbed and the inflation pressure has not been checked for months, the customer doesn’t have a leg to stand on. You’ve got the bugger red handed because every tire/wheel action has been recorded by the proverbial black box, now called the ECU or ECM.

Sounds pretty good from your side of the counter. But, what if you’re on the receiving end of this privacy issue?

Right now, California and Oregon are looking at proposals that would require every car to have a GPS system, so the state can track personal road use and tax accordingly.

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Motions and lawsuits have been filed to exclude black-box-collected vehicle condition evidence in product liability cases. Plaintiffs argue that use and performance data collected by cars is private and personal.

Also getting attention is a provision that would hook up all cars to an electronic system. The purpose: to track vehicle speed between Point A and Point B, which could result in an automatic traffic ticket mailed to your home. Is this over the top? Or just life in the 21st Century?

For Safety’s Sake

For years, Formula 1 teams have been able to track a tire’s performance from the safety of the pits. Is the tire running too hot? Losing air? Does the car have almost-perfect grip? Racecar telemetry systems can collect and transmit that data second by second in real-time.

So, where is the consumer segment heading? In one direction – safety. Computer technology – including data recording – is enhancing driver safety in many ways. Certain car lines have safety features we could only dream about just a few short years ago.

Adaptive cruise control/collision mitigation on some of these vehicles dishes up ‘safety’ by the bucketload. Using sensors and radar, cruise control can now adjust the throttle and brakes to maintain a safe and consistent distance from the vehicle in front of you. It even adjusts if there are changes in traffic speed or if another driver cuts in front. Once the system knows the lane is clear of traffic, it will return your car to its original cruising speed, all without your input.

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Blind spot detection/side assist/collision warning is another newbie. If you turn on your turn signal and the system detects something in your path, it will flash a light in your mirror, cause the seat or steering wheel to vibrate or sound an alarm. There is also a rollover prevention/mitigation system that tightens your seat belts, applies the brakes and modulates the throttle.

We’ve already seen adaptive headlights that turn the light beams as you turn. Night-vision assist systems give you a clear image of objects (like deer) as far as 1,000 feet ahead.

To say this is not your father’s car is a gross understatement. If you thought adjusting a heated memory seat was an ornery job, try adjusting a stereo that flashes the song title and artist’s name. Maybe there is such a thing as too much information?

TPMS: Just the Beginning

Or, maybe there’s not enough. TPMS is the latest vehicle safety technology. Right now, the systems need only report underinflation to a dashboard display. But, how long will it be before TPMS is part of a broader vehicle safety system that measures and records not only inflation pressure and temperature, but also road speed, slip angle, traction and even road temperature and the presence of moisture or ice?

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Remember how long it took to initiate Uniform Tire Quality Grading, let alone understand it? Try two decades. Something similar is happening right now in the tug of war between indirect and direct TPMS.

The idea is simple: Put a halt to the number-one tire maintenance issue – underinflation. How hard could that be? Turns out its harder than getting rid of a summer cold.

Though direct TPMS – being more accurate – makes the most logical sense, NHTSA is allowing for indirect systems, which use existing ABS and traction-control systems to estimate tire pressure by measuring tire rotation. Tires rotate at different rates based on their inflation pressures, and this system uses football-field-long algorithms to figure this all out with marginal accuracy.

NHTSA has its fingers crossed that upcoming technology will resolve the direct vs. indirect battle and make integration of TPMS easier on both automakers and the aftermarket. Carmakers (and carmaker attorneys) clearly favor direct systems. So do the tire company legal eagles. Smart consumers do, too.

But present direct TPMS technology is physically cumbersome and financially burdensome to the independent channels.

“We look at a TPMS dashboard system no differently than we look at the fuel gauge,” says GM. “When the low-fuel light comes on, you need to start looking for a gasoline station. Similarly, if the TPMS light comes on, you need to start looking for a tire dealer. To us, a pressure sensor in the tire is like a key fob that unlocks the door. It’s a tool to make life easier for the motorist.”

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That’s nice, but I doubt the gentleman has ever changed a tire. Your customers have to deal with TPMS, though, and all of this safety and convenience comes at a price. Replacement TPMSs – sensors and readers – cost $200 to $600. Other onboard safety sensors can be as cheap as $700 and as expensive as $1,000 or more.

“The TPMS chips we see today are smaller, stronger and smarter than the early contenders,” says a GM engineer. “Trouble is, some of the chips we are seeing today are capable of giving us more information than we need.”

So, what does this mean to you, the tire dealer? In the not-too-distant future, black boxes will reveal untold riches in on-road tire performance data, information that will help improve your sales. Combined with telematic systems, like GM’s OnStar, drivers will get information on tire condition and reminders when to rotate or replace their rubber.

Tire dealers, too, could be the recipients of such data, which could be useful in making customer appointments, managing workflow and inventory control.

When things go wrong, black-box-collected tire and vehicle data will reveal just who or what is at fault. Imagine what might have been if such information was available on Ford Explorers in the late 1990s.

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The million-dollar question is: Just how much information do we need? And, how much more will such an active dashboard complicate a driver’s job? Isn’t maneuvering a large vehicle through heavy traffic while talking on the phone, applying mascara and enjoying a soft drink complicated enough?

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