Cover Story: Driving SMARTER cars

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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 13 - 19, 2017.

 

MALAYSIA’s automotive sector is on the cusp of a technology shift, one that could see locally manufactured and assembled cars get much smarter and more connected.

Industry sources say at least two major carmakers are looking at rolling out telematics technology for the mass market vehicle segment in a big way.

This means pre-installing a device in a vehicle that can capture and transmit information, enabling car owners to monitor and communicate with their vehicles from afar using a mobile application.

To be sure, this technology is not new and these systems are already commonplace for many luxury marques including Mercedes, BMW and Porsche. Car enthusiasts can and often do purchase third-party equipment that give them these functionalities at a rather hefty price.

Similar technologies have also been deployed for the purpose of managing a fleet of vehicles so that companies can track their line of trucks, buses and vans.

But with recent technological developments, the proliferation of sensors, telecommunications and analytics systems,  these solutions can be rolled out more widely and more cost-effectively.

And so, telematics technology is no longer solely for high-end vehicle models.

This is a crucial development in the automotive sector, one that underscores how technology can change the way vehicles, drivers as well as insurers and bankers interact.

Getting into the fast lane is Fast Aid Holdings Sdn Bhd, which sees a bright future in telematics technology. The company and a technology partner are working with a domestic car manufacturer to install such a device in Malaysian cars.

Founded in 1997, Fast Aid Holdings is involved in a range of businesses, including its core business of manufacturing First Aid kits and medical devices, supplying safety kits to car companies and providing software solutions.

The company has since ventured into next generation technology solutions for the automotive sector such as telematics and collision-prevention technology.

 

Remote control

According to Fast Aid Holdings managing director R Nanda Kumar, the company has signed a deal to roll out a “black box” system for cars that is poised to be a game changer on the domestic mass market automotive scene.

Nanda declined to reveal the names of the local automotive manufacturer and technology partner except to say the latter has decades of experience in vehicle security and telematics.

The “black box” device proposed for locally made cars is similar to that used by another foreign car brand.

According to Nanda, the tamper-proof device is fitted into the interior of the car and has its own battery pack in addition to tapping the car’s battery. Users can connect to the device through a simple-to-use mobile app.

“This device is very useful. Essentially, it turns your smartphone into your car’s remote control. It can do a range of things, including monitor the status of your vehicle, track driving patterns and fuel efficiency, and keep tabs on security measures as well as maintenance requirements,” says Nanda.

Users, via the mobile app, can remotely switch the engine on or off; unlock doors, windows and boots; and turn on the air-conditioning.

The app also keeps a travel log that records mileage and fuel efficiency. For security purposes, users can track the car’s location and put in place measures to prevent theft.

“You can track the car accurately even if it is parked in basement six. Imagine that!

“The app also has a geo-fencing function where you can set a certain radius for your car. The minute your car moves out of that radius, you’ll get an alert. If you are not driving the car, you’ll know someone else is doing it.

“So, what you can do is, you can use the app to deter the thief by triggering the horn to blare and [switching on] the light automatically. You can also turn off the engine the minute the car stops at a roadside or at traffic lights junctions,” says Nanda.

Worried about maintenance or stalling? The mobile app can alert users when their car battery or tyre air pressure is running low. Users can also call for roadside assistance via the app in case of an emergency.

Nanda is excited about this development as he feels it is good for consumers and domestic carmakers alike.

“This will be a good upgrade for locally made cars. This technology was largely available to those who could afford luxury cars. But now, domestic carmakers are looking at it as well so Malaysians driving locally made cars can also benefit from telematics technology,” Nanda adds.

 

Workshop mechanics

Apart from the original equipment manufacturer route that Fast Aid Holdings is taking, there are also a number of local companies that have come up with their own solutions for consumers.

One established player is Katsana, whose flagship product is a GPS tracking platform that enables users to track vehicles such as cars, superbikes, trucks, lorries and oil tankers. It also powers fleet management solutions.

A new entrant into this market is Internet of Things/telematics startup Blue Labs Group Sdn Bhd, which provides a solution for car owners to connect to the after-market service centres for maintenance work.

Blue Labs is part of a group of companies under CKL Holdings Sdn Bhd, which also houses the well-established Lim Tayar workshop chain as well as a vocational training school called School of Skills.

CKL Holdings executive director Clement Lim says Blue Labs’ proposition to consumers is convenience.

“Our business is an organised structure in an unorganised industry. With the mobile application, this model is about convenience and protection. These two are the keywords,” says Lim.

Blue Labs device is a customised on-board diagnostics adaptor that is plugged into the car so that it can monitor maintenance-related information, such as the health of the battery and coolant temperature. The device is priced from RM90 and is available at partner workshops.

The Bluetooth device, however, functions on a read-only basis and does not allow users to send commands to the vehicle.

The Blue Labs’ mobile app enables owners to anticipate problems related to maintenance.

This means they will get alerts when their car battery voltage is down or if the coolant temperature is high so that they can prevent breakdowns. The app can also be used to schedule maintenance appointments with workshops on the Blue Labs’ panel.

According to Lim, at present there are about 40 workshops on board and the plan is to expand the network of workshops nationwide.

What Blue Labs is banking on is its parent company and management team’s experience and networks in the after-market service business.

For Lim, it is absolutely crucial to get the car service workshops on board so that there can be an ecosystem that works for consumers. But this is not easy as the workshop mechanics mostly operate conventionally without using much technology.

“We think the market for connected cars is big. If a few guys can come together and make it work, the whole pie is yours. But it’s hard to get these guys to use computer, web-based systems, it’s hard.

“The high-level guys get it. But the ground level ones will take a while. If they don’t buy it, there’s nothing to sell,” he says.

With Blue Labs, Lim is betting on a future where connected cars will become ubiquitous.

“This [connected cars] is definitely going to come. It’s not just something that’s in the future. It’s a matter of execution and whether consumers will embrace it. In the US, consumers there embraced it very quickly. For Asia, I do not recall anyone doing it on that kind of scale and becoming successful,” he says.