From roadside assistance to digital assistants

As cars evolve, as new business models arise, and as the term mobility takes on new and greater meaning, membership organisations like AAA are rethinking their strategies to keep ahead of the curve and ensure they remain relevant. By Celeste Dooley

How does a hundred-plus year-old roadside service club remain relevant in the industry it serves, when that industry is teetering on the brink of some of the greatest changes it has ever faced? It’s a question troubling any and every organisation that has for many decades depended upon the automotive industry’s status quo. But recognising that ‘business as usual’ is unlikely to be part of the future of mobility, organisations such as the American Automobile Association (AAA) are being forced to adapt in accordance with a new, technological era.

AAA was established in 1902 at a time when the car was only just becoming a mainstream mode of transportation. Some 116 years later, AAA provides a number of services to its members, including of course roadside assistance, as well as car care, insurance, travel, driver and banking services. Having been established to support that first mobility evolution, when man removed the horse from the transportation equation, the organisation is now assessing how it can support another mobility evolution – one which is likely to see vehicle usership replace vehicle ownership, electrification replace combustion engines, and even automation replace human drivers.

We’re having discussions with OEMs to find out how can we interact with newer vehicles in particular, and share that information with our members

From roadside to by your side

Regardless of how the industry changes, AAA’s aim is to remain with its members for the duration of their driving lives, explained Viral Patel, Chief Enterprise Architect at Auto Club Group (ACG), the second largest club in the AAA federation with over 9.6 million members. “Our goal is to be with our members, regardless of whether or not they’re in a connected vehicle or if they’re on vacation somewhere,” he told Automotive Megatrends.

“We’ll see a shift from what used to be traditional roadside assistance to now being involved in other aspects of their lives.” The organisation has already seen a number of traditional member services become irrelevant, such as the provision of paper maps and route and destination guidance which have been replaced by integrated connectivity from well-known navigation companies. As cars become more reliable, increasingly frequently equipped for remote diagnostics and over-the-air software updates, even the need for roadside assistance is expected to decline.

Electrifying times

Nonetheless, there remains a place for roadside assistance going forward, suggests George Onofrio, Vice President and Head of Application Development at ACG. “There will still be situations where someone will have a flat tyre, batteries will need to be replaced or someone will get into an accident,” he said, noting that this will happen whether a car has a combustion engine or an alternative powertrain, and whether it’s human-driven or not. However, the role of AAA in that assistance will evolve, said Onofrio. “There will still be some type of roadside assistance, but we’re looking beyond that, at how to connect to our members before they are stuck on the side of the road.”

One way in which AAA is going beyond this is to communicate with OEMs to find solutions for common car problems by utilising connected features. For example, low tyre pressure or battery issues could potentially be communicated to the driver before they require roadside assistance, through the right connected features. “Those are things that we are exploring right now. We’re having initial discussions with OEMs to find out how can we interact with newer vehicles in particular, and share that information with our members,” Onofrio explained.

AAA on ADAS

Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are improving car and road safety at an ever-increasing rate. Recent AAA research in the US found that 75% of vehicle owners with vehicles integrated with semi-automated features trust this technology. However, 75% of drivers also said they would feel afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car. “What that suggests to us,” Patel said, finding a positive angle, “is that there is a gradual experience or gradual trust being established.” AAA can utilise this by adapting, as it always has done, to consumer needs and following the trends of the rest of the industry. “At one point, customers could only call us or speak face to face,” Onofrio explained. “Then we had web, then a mobile app. Now automatic voice control and digital assistance is out there.” By moving along with technological trends, AAA has been able to maintain provision of a service while still adapting to the current connected environment.

Although vehicles are becoming safer, reparability is inevitably becoming more expensive due to the number of integrated connected features in vehicles. “In the past, replacing a bumper meant just replacing a bumper,” Onofrio explained. “Now, in a small fender-bender accident, you’re not only replacing a bumper as there are sensors and cameras that can suffer damage in seemingly minor accidents.”

AAA
“There will still be situations where someone will have a flat tyre, batteries will need to be replaced or someone will get into an accident” – George Onofrio, Vice President, ACG

Self-driving cars

Autonomous drive technology, although a potential threat to business-as-usual for a number of industry sectors, does not present any immediate threats to AAA, believes Onofrio. “We’re seeing vehicles today that are at Level 2 autonomy, with semi-autonomous capabilities. Going beyond Level 2 and being in a situation where all the vehicles on the road are minimally of at least Level 2 autonomy could be decades away.” A fleet at Level 3 is even further away, he believes.

Our goal is to be with our members, regardless of whether or not they’re in a connected vehicle or if they’re on vacation. We’ll see a shift from traditional roadside assistance to other aspects of their lives

Indeed, on the flip side, the rise in autonomy could be a positive for the company. “Here at AAA, our goal is to educate drivers on the safety benefits and the limitations of these applications, whether it’s autonomous technologies which are emerging now, or, as in the past, the importance of the safety belt,” Patel explained. “We always engage with our members and we also provide feedback to the automotive industry, as well as working closely with government and regulatory bodies.”

Patel described a “paradigm shift” in engagement behaviour for AAA members. This is in part due to the increased integration of digital assistants in vehicles. Patel explained that AAA has recognised this increased trend and is striving to make it compatible with the organisation’s aims. “We want to make sure our members can access our services with the sound of their voice using natural language,” he said, with a nod to the connected member vision of the company’s most senior executive management, including AAA’s President and Chief Executive, Joe Richardson. “As part of that, we are building a conversational platform which our members can use to engage with us,” Patel said. He compared this to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, which recognise users’ voices without the need for any button activation.

Evolution of the auto industry, evolution of AAA

The use of digital assistants will improve the user experience for AAA members, Shohreh Abedi, EVP, Chief Operations and Technology Officer at ACG, told Megatrends. “As we evolve our voice commands, AAA will become more powerful and easier to use on or off the road,” she said. “Interactive technologies will provide our members the ability to access our products and services wherever and whenever they need them. We are achieving our connected member vision while preserving our brand value and embracing the smart connected technologies our members use in their everyday lives.”

Looking further ahead, Patel said he expects to see artificial intelligence (AI) playing a bigger role in the company’s services. He cited as an example the virtual automated call centre launched by AAA in 2017. “We were able to reduce the whole call intake process, and over nine months we successfully serviced over one million calls from ACG members.” This technology has alleviated the issues associated with peak volume and enables the call centre to operate 24/7.

Interactive technologies will provide our members the ability to access our products and services wherever and whenever they need them. We are achieving our connected member vision while preserving our brand value and embracing smart connected technologies

Change, in the wake of advancements for connected, autonomous, shared and electric (CASE) vehicles, is coming – but inevitably to cities more quickly than rural areas. “In more rural areas where it may be more difficult to implement and manage the infrastructure, it’ll probably take more time,” explained Onofrio. Highly urbanised, smart cities utilise mobility in examples such as ride-sharing and robo-taxis. AAA aspires to find a place in this ecosystem and so it has deployed its own start-up car-share service through A3 Ventures; GIG Car Share is currently active in Berkeley and Oakland in California.

Don’t follow the vehicle, follow the member

AAA wants to follow its members, rather than their vehicles, an important mentality in an industry where vehicle ownership is declining in importance. Particularly for younger generations, the idea of owning a car could be much less prevalent in the wake of smart mobility solutions, which present opportunities to cut costs and emissions, while becoming increasingly efficient ways of getting around smart cities.

Digital assistants again can be an effective way of integrating connected technology into mobility vehicles to make the driving experience a safer, smarter one. GM’s OnStar may have set a benchmark for this, with GM pioneering the technology, but AAA wants to move away from single OEM alliance to concentrate on the member. “Our goal is to go beyond just one automaker,” said Onofrio, “and to be with that member, no matter where they are and which OEM they’re with.”

Evolution

Clearly, technological and corporate evolution is essential for an organisation as old as AAA to be able to continue to support a membership in a rapidly moving industry, particularly one facing a new era in which its members may no longer own cars and may feel they no longer require such membership.

AAA is doing this through its aforementioned Oakland-headquartered venture and innovation lab, A3 Ventures. “We exist to harness these forces for the benefit of members and future generations, humanizing disruptive change for the betterment of the communities we serve,” the A3 Ventures website explains.

Using innovation to build business models and platforms, A3 Ventures aims to keep AAA updated in an industry that is being transformed by disruptive technology.

Developments like these are critical when keeping up with the development of smart cars and smart cities and are the reason why organisations like AAA are able to remain relevant in a fast-changing industry.

This article appeared in the Q2 2018 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue

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