Roadside auto assistance is evolving

Columbia company wants to be key player in car-tracking devices

Howard Business

June 05, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

As more cars drive onto the road of high-tech, a company that is hoping to be serious competition for OnStar is emerging here in Howard County.

Response Services Center LLC, a subsidiary of AAA Inc., monitors car-tracking devices to help drivers in need of emergency assistance and to prevent auto theft. The company opened a call center in Columbia last month that is expected to employ about 500. Initial service offerings are expected during the first quarter of next year.

"As we move into 2001, we will have the most advanced telematics call center in the country," said Dan Dickerson, the company's chief executive officer.

Telematics, wireless transmission of voice and data to vehicles, is advancing in the automotive industry as manufacturers, with money to spend on the products, head into the technology world.

"They are moving in that direction, and they're moving there very quickly, and they're moving there with big bucks," said Richard A. Henderson, an automobile analyst at Pershing Division of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp. in Jersey City, N.J.

Henderson said financially secure automakers are taking equity interest in telematics companies. One reason, he said, is to attract consumers who want to trade in their cars and upgrade.

About 200,000 cars have telematics devices. That number is expected to reach about 8 million by 2003 and 10 million by 2004, according to a study by the Strategis Group Inc., a telecom consulting company in Washington.

Mercedes-Benz has put the devices in many of its 2000 vehicles. The technology that tracks cars for navigation purposes is not standard in Mercedes, but the emergency-response technology is in all models except the M-class sport utility vehicle, said Mercedes-Benz spokesman Fred Heiler.

"By the time our entire 2001 line rolls out in just a few months, we'll have it on everything we sell," Heilersaid.

Still, telematics is a fairly young business. Dickerson was a pioneer of the industry, working to create the first car-monitoring system in 1992 when he was an employee of Westinghouse Electric Corp.

Combining Global Positioning Satellite circuitry with wireless communication, Dickerson and Westinghouse worked with Ford to create Lincoln RESCUE, a remote emergency-response system first put into Lincoln cars in 1996.

Later that year, Dickerson left Westinghouse to help establish Response Services Center, which the company envisions will emerge as a leader in the telematics field.

"No doubt about it, OnStar defines the current market," said Marshall Doney, vice president of AAA Automotive Services. "We see OnStar as one option to get these services; we feel that Response will be an equally viable option."

Geri Lama, a spokeswoman for OnStar, said her company has more than 200,000 subscribers and is aiming to be in nearly 1 million vehicles by the end of the year. "I believe we lead the industry," she said. While some competition exists for OnStar, Doney said AAA believes that Response Services Center "can be a very prominent player in this arena."

Here's how their service works:

The company receives a signal from a troubled driver, who hit a button in his car. The company calls the driver, and then conferences 911 into the call.

The process takes 30 seconds or less, from the moment the car button is pushed to the moment the 911 call is received.

Response Services Center, which is helping to develop a similar hand-held product, will also offer a service to remotely unlock car doors for people with keys locked inside and a roadside assistance service, where car trouble can be remotely diagnosed rather than the car being towed.

Response Services Center has about 40 employees. By next year, it plans to have more than 200 and, eventually, about 500 workers.

At its center in Columbia, which fills about half of the company's 28,600-square-foot office space, 32 miles of fiber-optic cable are beneath the floor. The data room is soon to be filled with computers and wiring, equipped with a dry chemical that can extinguish a fire without destroying computers. Outside, there is a backup generator in case of a power outage. And the company has a second, secret backup site in case an emergency shuts down the Columbia office.

The company is putting its service to use: It has been hired to monitor a high-end car for a rental car company. Though Dickerson could not say who the client is, he said his company has recovered a handful of stolen cars.

Once it makes its initial service offering, Response Services Center is expecting more clients to follow. "We know the growth rate is going to be there," Dickerson said.

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