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Case study: How the RAC is digitising roadside assistance

The RAC, an organisation steeped in tradition, is on a modernisation drive. We look at how Microsoft Azure is helping it digitise older cars

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: RAC digitises driver assistance

The RAC has used Microsoft’s Azure cloud to power its new telematics business, driving the roadside vehicle repair company into the digital age.

Until very recently, the RAC spoke to its customers only twice – once if they ever broke down and needed roadside assistance, and once when it was time to renew their membership.

Nick Walker joined the company in 2015 to spearhead its telematics business. He previously worked at vehicle tracking firm Masternaut, where he was managing director of the company’s German-based business. He spoke to Computer Weekly at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in November.

“We had a culture of expecting the membership to call us,” says Walker. “We have two touchpoints for customers – one at renewal and the second is when they break down. We cannot continue doing what we do.” 

Among the major decisions Walker has taken is the recent acquisition of telematics company Nebula Systems. Acquiring the company, whose main intellectual property is its software, was arguable a bold move for a traditional company like the RAC, which was founded in 1897. 

“In our business, we looked at which parts we needed to fully own to get the best for the business,” says Walker. “We needed to own the diagnostic capabilities, but we don’t need to own a datacentre.” 

Walker suggested to the RAC board that it needed to buy the company. “Our board is very visionary,” he says. “When we told the story about how we needed this chunk of technology to get more data out of vehicles in a much more efficient way, it was absolutely a no-brainer.”

Nebula Systems helps the RAC with the telematics to gain access to all the engine control units (ECUs) in vehicles. Walker says that thanks to the diagnostic capabilities built up historically by the RAC, along with the piece that Nebula Systems brings, “we can actually take quite a deep dive into the things that are going on”.

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The RAC uses a black box that connects directly to the car and communicates over the mobile network into the RAC’s Azure cloud-based platform. “Our first step has been to put the telematics platform into Microsoft Azure,” says Walker. “But as we put more vehicles on the platform, that’s a heck of a lot of data coming in in real time.”

Over time, the RAC will stream analytics to enable it to watch out for the important pieces of data, instead of analysing every piece of data collected.

The organisation is also looking to develop apps to alert drivers via their smartphones, which not only tell the driver there is a fault, but also how it will be fixed. Over time, the appl could tie in location-based services to find a suitable workshop, says Walker.

He says the app will enable the RAC to offer a simple “click here” option to enable the driver to book their car in for repair.

One of the other benefits of gathering telematics data is that it enables the RAC to have more interaction with its customers, says Walker. “We can look for patterns in how people drive and so we can also become a remote driving instructor and say ‘if you didn’t do this, you could save this amount of money on fuel every year’.”

The RAC made its first-ever proactive call to a customer recently, says Walker. “Now all of a sudden, thanks to the technology, we have the capability to look inside someone’s vehicle and tell them proactively that they need help,” he says.

For example, the RAC has picked up faults with vehicles’ fuel injectors. “When someone has a fault with their injector, you don’t see a warning light on the dashboard,” says Walker. “The vehicle will continue to drive, but we know there is an injector fault. Ultimately, it may cause damage to the engine, so intercepting this fault is a really valuable piece of information.”

We are taking data from vehicles, interpreting it and turning it into actions
Nick Walker, RAC

Another issue the RAC system has been able to identify is blockages in the filter used in diesel engines. “If it clogs, because you are doing a lot of short journeys, your vehicle will stop,” says Walker. “We can intercept this fault and prevent it from happening.”

This signals a move into preventative maintenance by the RAC. “We are taking data from vehicles, interpreting it and turning it into actions,” he said.

Thanks to the cloud, says Walker, it is now possible for the RAC to run the diagnostics anywhere a vehicle is driven, even outside the UK. “We know where you are, we know what’s going on with the vehicle and we know you need help,” he adds.

From a business-to-business perspective, the RAC can use its black box technology to support car leasing firms. The lease company treats the car as an asset, and its interest is in the value of that asset when the vehicle is returned.

The lease company is therefore interested that the car is serviced regularly and if a warning light has been ignored, says Walker. “When you lease a car, you need to call in regularly to update the mileage. The leasing company has no idea of the mileage until the car goes in for a service. Through this technology, it will have a constant view of the mileage. So if you look like you are about to go over your contracted mileage, the company can call you.”

Deep learning

But as Walker observes: “Getting data out of a vehicle is one thing; understanding it and turning it into things people can understand is very different.” 

For a number of years, the RAC has deployed full diagnostic equipment on its fleet of patrol vans. “With 2.5 million roadside incidents every year, we have built a pretty massive database,” says Walker. “We have seen a lot of faults. We know how to diagnose. We also know how to fix it.” 

This information feeds the database, but if the data is extracted, it is meaningless on its own, says Walker. “They are a bunch of ones and zeros. If I said you had a P01Z code on your car, what the hell is that?”

If I said you had a P01Z code on your car, what the hell is that?
Nick Walker, RAC

But the RAC is now trying to extrapolate the error codes into something more meaningful to the driver. “We are turning the mass of codes into a traffic light system,” says Walker. “We can tell you if there is something wrong with the vehicle but that you can carry on driving, or whether there is something wrong and you ought to go to a workshop or there is something wrong and you should stop and we’ll come and help you. It really is red, amber, green.”

This information is linked to the company’s call handling and customer relationship management (CRM) system. “We take the information from the car and turn it into a case, which correlates to a particular issue with a particular member’s vehicle,” says Walker. “In the call centre, people can pick up this case and alert the driver that the RAC is offering help.”

What is interesting about the RAC is that it aims to offer this level of telemetry on any vehicle, not just the newest cars, which are being installed with such technology by their manufacturers.

Walker describes the RAC’s system as closed-loop operational. “We are going down the same path as Rolls-Royce with predictive maintenance,” he says.

The difference is that the RAC’s predictive maintenance is not being used in multimillion-pound aircraft, but in everyday vans, cars and trucks. .......................................................................................................

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