GPS brings AAA quicker

Technology: Satellite-based navigational technology is being used by AAA as well as companies working against the clock.

November 27, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

To many stranded motorists who call AAA everyday, the worst part about being broken down is waiting for rescue.

That wait could stretch on seemingly forever as dispatchers, often in an office miles away, struggled to match the caller's position with the nearest service truck. The automobile association looked to the heavens for help.

What it found was GPS, or the global positioning system. The satellite-based navigational technology, once the domain of the U.S. military, is now an increasingly sought-after tool for businesses that must move products swiftly or track their whereabouts. In AAA's case, GPS is employed to locate the closest truck. Drivers shaved about 10 minutes off the average 42-minute wait in a yearlong test run in Philadelphia, and officials expect similar results in the Baltimore area, where GPS was rolled out this month as part of a multiyear plan to cover the Mid-Atlantic.

"We're still working out the kinks, but every little thing that helps us get there faster is a good thing," said Adrian Casey, who has been driving a AAA battery truck in Maryland for about a year. "The single biggest problem is that people don't always know where they are, and right now, the technology can't help us with that."

But as cars and cell phones are increasingly equipped with GPS capabilities, Casey noted, people stuck on the side of an unfamiliar road won't need to know.

A GPS receiver can pinpoint a user's location by measuring the distance to 24 satellites orbiting Earth and various stations on the ground. Distance is determined by the time it takes for radio waves to bounce among them. A master control station in Colorado Springs, Colo., computes the data.

Uses for the GPS system, created by the government in the 1970s, have been expanding since it became commercially available about two decades ago. But products have proliferated in the past few years as the government allowed nonmilitary users to get precise data.

Companies are always searching for better ways to serve customers with faster service or more information, said Martin Dresner, a professor of logistics, business and public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Dresner expects businesses to continue exploring uses for GPS and other navigational technology. Companies will be able to control theft, track inventory and monitor employees - to the dismay of some employees, he said.

"Ten years ago before cell phones were widely in use, truck drivers used CB radios," he said. "They've gone from radioing in to tell dispatchers where they are to the dispatchers knowing where they are. ... In other cases, you can look online to see where your package is, or if you order a Toyota, and the engine comes from Japan, you may be able to see where the engine is on the Web site. Technology is still developing."

At AAA Mid-Atlantic, when a call comes from one of 3.4 million members in the six-state region - about 4,000 calls a day from Maryland and Delaware alone - a dispatcher uses the GPS system to locate the nearest trucks. They are sorted by driving distance and type, and information on the motorist is sent to the proper truck.

This replaces a more labor-intensive system where dispatchers would call drivers or area towing companies to find any truck. Casey, the AAA driver, said the new system cuts down on mileage, saving vehicle wear as well as time.

All 100 AAA tow trucks in the Mid-Atlantic from New Jersey to Virginia are equipped with the devices to transmit their locations and receive information. The association is also outfitting many of the 2,000 independent contractors with the devices at a cost of up to $2,000 each.

Commercial products are offered by several companies, including Owings Mills-based Aether Systems Inc. and one of AAA's providers, Oakland, Calif.-based Kivera Inc.

Kivera President and Chief Executive Officer Stuart Jacobson said the company began selling products based on the technology more than three years ago, when they became accurate and cheap enough to sell.

The company offers a host of products used by businesses and individuals, all revolving around GPS and another navigational technology used largely in cell phones.

Transportation products, such as fleet management and mapping systems on board cars, are a growing business. And cell phone products that can do such things as direct users to a good restaurant or cheap gasoline are "the big frontier," Jacobson said.

For AAA, Kivera takes the GPS coordinates and turns them into actual road addresses.

"It's a standard technology," said Mike Walsh, manager of emergency road service technology for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "We need to get a critical mass to make the system work. Then, it all happens in a split second."

The system, however, hasn't solved all problems.

Casey, who clearly had mastered the new technology, sometimes still opts for his cell phone to check an address or relay how much longer a job will take, because using a keyboard requires him to pull off the road.

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