The future of breakdowns

In the 120 years or so since cars first appeared on our roads in any significant numbers, they have of course changed beyond measure. Although the basic premise remains in terms of four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine to make it move, what goes on under the bonnet now owes more to cutting edge science and technology than ever before.

So that means the job of the breakdown mechanic has had to change as well. Years ago, a technician’s job mostly involved straightforward mechanical problems and replacing parts such as flat tyres and batteries. Nowadays, they also have to contend with the complexities of on-board computer systems, multi-functional sensors, trackers and nanotech controlling the engine.

But cutting-edge technology isn’t just restricted to the manufacture of cars and vans, but it also enables us to develop better tools to repair them at the roadside. For example, advanced new diagnostic software means technicians can bring capability of a repair garage to the customer at roadside, with their custom-built laptops. As such they can fix problems that would have previously been dealt with at a garage after being towed there

The connected car revolution

Today, the development of connected cars is giving us the best tools we’ve ever had. New methods of collecting, sharing and analysing data can transform breakdown services and therefore provide increased customer service.

At the heart of this is the use of telematics: transmitting information about a vehicle so that it can be used in increasingly more powerful ways in terms of letting the driver know exactly what’s happening with their vehicle. It was only a few years ago that telematics meant little more than commercial fleet managers being able to track the location of their vans. Today, the data that we can collect and analyse goes so much further. We can monitor a vehicle’s condition and detect faults remotely, allowing us to respond more quickly to breakdowns – and even to prevent them.

From pro-active to predictive

And it doesn’t stop there. What’s really exciting is the ability to predict breakdowns before they actually happen. The wealth of data we collect will allow us to tell if your car’s in danger of developing a fault. Using advanced machine-learning techniques, we’ll be able to keep you one step ahead and prevent some breakdowns entirely. A simple phone call advising you to bring your car in for servicing may be all that’s required.

For 120 years the model has stayed pretty much the same in that the stricken motorist calls us and we come to the rescue. Today, and moving into the near-future, we will be turning that on its head and telling members about a potential problem before they even know it’s happening.

This will not only save motorists time and money, but also give them an even more valuable commodity: peace of mind. Businesses, too, will benefit. By detecting and repairing faults early, they’ll be able to avoid longer and more costly periods of vehicle downtime. It will also enable them to provide a more reliable service to their customers – so, everyone wins.

Data concerns

Of course, this level of connectivity and data sharing might trouble some people. Privacy concerns are as much a part of the information age as emails, tweets and cat videos. But it seems that motorists are warming to the benefits of telematics. For example, in a survey for the RAC Report on Motoring 2016, just 33% of drivers opposed ‘black box’ devices to record how well they are driving – much lower than the 58% who did so in 2010.

It’s crucial to remember that pro-active and predictive breakdown cover isn’t about tracking people’s every move, Big Brother-style. It’s about helping drivers avoid breakdowns, and getting them back on the road more quickly when they do breakdown – saving them time and money. More like Guardian Angels in that sense.

The future

Of course, technological progress won’t end with connected cars. The arrival of driverless cars in the next five to 10 years will present new challenges for breakdown services – and, potentially, new solutions as well.

However, all this new technology won’t remove the vital human element of roadside assistance. Patrols will continue to be manned by skilled technicians, while contact centre staff will be able to turn their focus from answering urgent calls to providing reassurance and follow-up care.

The world of motoring is changing rapidly, all the time. From electric cars to connected cars to driverless cars, it’s a lot to keep up with. But that’s what the RAC has always done, constantly striving to utilise the latest technology to give our members the best breakdown cover possible. Pro-active and predictive services are the latest exciting examples which one day soon will be as common as changing a flat tyre.