In June this year, Mercedes-Benz US announced the winners of its first Innovation Challenge, a competition for start-ups. It offered $50,000 in prize money and the prospect of a contract with Mercedes-Benz in the US.
One of two winners chosen was AutoMap, a four-year-old technology business based in Hillsboro, Oregon. It created a gadget for finding cars on dealers’ sites, but spotted a bigger opportuniy in finished vehicle logistics.
“We got invited to a logistics conference,” recalls Mark Sargeant, VP of business development at AutoMap. “The conference was full of people complaining of not knowing where vehicles were, and dealing with inconsistencies. ’Automap is made for this’ I said to myself.
Tracking at Tuscaloosa The business case for applying AutoMap at Mercedes-Benz is somewhat different to an average dealer lot. The finished vehicle yard at the Tuscaloosa plant in Alabama contains 7,000-8,000 cars at a time.
“They deal with a lot of barcode scanning, which opens up the risk of human error,” Sargeant explains. Even small errors or omissions would mean that the yard management system falls out of step with reality.
Mixing up one out of a hundred scanning or data input operations in a yard the size of Plant Tuscaloosa’s might mean 70-80 vehicles being misplaced. AutoMap removes all human interaction from the tracking process, which is what interested Mercedes, Sargeant says.
“They’ve got people from repair, from accessories, coming and grabbing the cars and taking them. The last known location was wherever a driver last scanned it in, so they didn’t know the real-time location.”
As well as mapping VINs against locations, AutoMap can also collect whatever pertinent data is available via the OBD port. “The cars all leave the factory in transport mode,” Sargeant says. “If we want to know estimated battery life, we’re able to pull that information from the car.”
AutoMap’s back-end system is configurable to generate alerts such as a low battery charge, as well as identifying the time, VIN, location and precise battery state.
The handheld app can then guide a yard worker to the problem via Google Maps, so the car can be pulled out for charging or battery replacement.
AutoMap’s modules are configurable and can collect and broadcast whatever OBD data the customer needs, Sargeant says. “Mercedes wants information on their vehicles from proprietary codes in their computer system,” he explains. “They’re able to provide us with those codes and we’re able to get them what they need to know.”
The AutoMap system can also collect status data using high-gain antennas, which Sargeant says can read the low-power signals from Bluetooth modules from as far as 100 yards away. So a network of antennas can watch a large yard.
Sargeant says news of AutoMap’s win with Mercedes-Benz has already triggered interest from other car manufacturers.“Because we’ve been able to prove that we can do this, it’s attracted the attention of other OEMs,” he says, though he cannot give details yet. AutoMap also foresees wider applications across the outbound supply chain.
“We provide an API that offers easy integration into other systems,” Sargeant says. An OEM like Mercedes could install Bluetooth modules on the production line and have them stay with the car right through to the end customer, Sargeant adds.
“Our modules are reusable, inexpensive and easy to use. Our vision is to have the transport companies use our system as well, tracking cars as they leave the site all the way through to the dealership, the system used on the lot.”
The modules would then be removed at the last step of delivery, before being collected, boxed up and sent back to the factory for reprocessing and reuse. That end-to-end scenario remains a vision for now, but the ability to track vehicles from factory to customer, and without human error, is a capability that adds such value that it must emerge soon.