The Information Age Interview: RAC


About the company:



In 2001, research group JD Power and Associates ranked RAC Motoring Services as the number one roadside assistance provider in the UK.

This was the second time in four years that the RAC has received the accolade, but the organisation was also recognised as the only rescue service provider to have improved its performance every single year since the study begun.

The RAC puts much of that record down to its increasingly sophisticated use of technology. The organisation relies heavily on a combination of mobile hardware, communications technology and a bespoke ‘command and control' vehicle location and problem resolution system.



However, the RAC is now undergoing a major technology migration. Since July 2001, the company has been configuring and installing a new command and control system, known as iCAD (intelligent computer aided dispatch), to replace the original system which has been operational for almost 13 years.

On top of this, RAC has also recently rolled out new notebook PCs to its roadside patrols that contain all the necessary mechanical information required to resolve motorists' problems.

Peter Skilton, the RAC's head of strategic technology, spoke to Information Age magazine about the challenges the RAC has faced in implementing the new systems, and how they are likely to impact the RAC's service in the future.



Information Age (IA): As a roadside rescue service, the RAC must have a highly specific set of technology requirements. Can you give an overview of how the RAC uses technology to support its service delivery?

Peter Skilton (PS): When a customer calls the RAC, they are put through to a response centre in one of our three UK-based call centres.

Based on the RAC's current command and control software, the agent establishes where the customer is, what their problem is and which patrol mechanic would be most appropriate to fix it.

All of RAC's patrol vehicles have satellite receivers, so agents can send out patrols based on location and the type of problem. The customer's details, together with a description of their problem and their location, are then dispatched to a mobile data terminal, or MDT, in the patrol van.

When the patrol reaches the customer, he can access information on the car and its components from his ‘Patrol PC' – an A5-sized Windows-based Fujitsu-Siemens notebook personal computer that contains information on every type of car they are likely to come across.

Once the job is done, they put the details back into the MDT using a seven-digit fault code that describes what the problem was and how it was dealt with.

This information is stored in a central SAS database and analysed. This provides a huge source of post-operation data that helps us refine the service we provide.

For instance, we can identify early problems in new models of a car and pass that information back to suppliers. It's all about closing the loop.

IA: I understand that the RAC is in the process of upgrading its rescue service software. How will the current practices within the company change as you roll out the new system?

PS: Although it works pretty well, our current system has been in place for 12 or 13 years. It was loosely based on an Australian package, but was heavily configured to meet the RAC's requirements. We're now in the process of rolling out a new, less bespoke system on a region-by-region basis, known as iCAD (intelligent computer aided dispatch).

This system is widely used by emergency services and rescue companies around the world, so has a wide support network, which we did not have before.

The new system will have a number of features that the old one lacked, and we hope it will be able to deal with a greater number of our rescue calls automatically. For example, it will feed off information from UK address directory Yellow Pages, which has details of more than 100,000 landmarks, so we'll be able to track down members more quickly and accurately.

One of the best features of the new system will be call guidance. Using keywords, iCAD will structure the questions agents ask customers in a logical way, so that they can get to the root of a problem quicker. We hope to be able to deal with around 80% of calls automatically using the iCAD system.

IA: You have chosen to provide your roadside patrols with two separate pieces of hardware – the in-vehicle mobile data terminal and the ‘Patrol PC'. What was the logic behind this decision, and how have you integrated the two platforms?

PS: We've taken the view that it makes good sense to use one platform to support the vehicle location and the job-related data, and a separate platform to support the retrieval of technical information through a user-friendly browser. You don't need a personal computer level of complexity to support location information or job-related data.

There are two families of functions and applications here: one focused on job and location data and the other one all to do with browser front-ends, information retrieval and patrol training.

We do imagine in the not too distant future there will be a link between these two platforms that will enable patrols to retrieve technical information triggered by the type of job they receive and specific to the make, model or type of vehicle the patrol is attending.

IA: A large proportion of your workforce is mobile. What particular security issues has this unearthed, for example with the notebooks computers used by your roadside patrols?

PS: There are a couple of areas that we felt we wanted to take as guiding principles when we were looking at security.

At the moment we update the notebook computer using a CD that is sent to the patrols' home addresses roughly 10 times a year. So we're concerned to ensure that the loss of that CD, or the notebook PC, or even both items does not in any way compromise us.

The areas we're concerned about are clearly associated with the RAC's intellectual property – information that may have been provided to us in a commercially sensitive fashion.

The second aspect of security, I guess, is the physical security of the items in the vehicle. We hope the measures we've taken act as a deterrent without inhibiting ease of use.

For example, we have introduced a SmartWater label (a chemical watermarking device that identifies the notebook computer as belonging solely to the RAC), and physical cables that tether it to the vehicle. We use software with encryption and access control, which limits the use of specific functions on the device to unauthorised users.

There was a lot of work done in getting the system set up so security was positioned at the right level but now we feel we have a good level of control.

IA: How did the environment your patrols work in influence your choice of hardware and how did you build the interface to your back-end applications?

PS: Immensely. We wanted a device that was portable, that patrols could take into the members' vehicles, that was easy to handle and user friendly. We wanted a device with a touch screen – patrols have dirty hands.

The concept of a personal computer that was upgradable, where there was some roadmap for that computing device to develop, was also important. That meant we needed to find a supplier that could support the kind of computer we wanted for the next three or four years.

At the end of the day we would have preferred a fully ‘ruggedised' product but it was not affordable. We thought we could modify a unit that was off the shelf with careful protection and make it work for us for at least half the cost.

IA: Critics of mobile technology claim it is expensive and difficult to implement and that the benefits rarely outweigh the cost. What returns has the RAC had so far on its investment in mobile technology?

PS: In ‘hard' terms, the proposed returns we put into the business case are associated with reduced maintenance costs. The old CD book readers [previously used by the RAC] now only have one supplier, so maintenance was getting increasingly difficult, as well as costly.

Also, the production of the media each month, because it was not an industry-standard format, was more expensive than what we're paying now to produce a standard CD each month.

There have also been softer benefits. The majority of patrols take some time to take the technology on-board, but they see the benefits of viewing the information they need in a much more easily usable format. The old reader was predominantly text-based and difficult to use, whereas with the PCs, patrols can see colour pictures, and, hopefully, eventually use video clips.

All the new PCs also have interactive training packages. This means patrols can take away training and work on it further when they're out on the road or even at home. It will change the way we look at training – it's not economic to take the patrols off the road and into the classroom for whatever reason.

It's quite difficult to say at the moment what all the benefits are. I'd say in another 12 months we'll have a better idea. We're still in a settling in period – there's been a lot of technology to get to grips with.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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