TALKING DIGITAL

How interactive technology and artificial intelligence is shaping a new (virtual) reality for the automotive aftermarket

It’s just like every other job you’ve ever completed in the workshop – car up on the hoist, tools in hand and a torch to light the undercarriage, you wrench at some fasteners and gently prize a small metal bracket from its housing. Just another task to complete – and another satisfied customer by the end of the day.
Or is it? Because what if I told you that that sequence of events didn’t really happen? What if I told you that everything I just described was an illusion: a 3D, interactive, immersive training animation, played out inside a VR headset with ‘smart’ electronic training tools? Sounds like science fiction – but here’s the thing: if you’re a production line technician in Mercedes’ new Smart factory in Germany, using Virtual Reality headsets to train on the latest equipment and tools, this “future” workshop scenario probably doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
As we power through this decade’s intense digital revolution of ‘things’, this is the new reality descending upon the automotive sector. Everything – be it how we train, how we connect with customers, or how we interact with cars themselves – is being forced across the digital rubicon, so understanding the pace of change is a vital first step for all players in the industry.
As the novelist Warren Ellis once said, “the future sneaks up on us, in the fringes of daily life.” That is an immensely true statement to apply to the world the automotive aftermarket now operates in.
Stop and think about it for a minute. Ten years ago, would you have picked that the iPhone would become such a powerful shaper of how people live and how they do business? Probably not. Yet today, almost every single car owner has a smartphone and uses that device for just about anything they desire.

With that in mind, ask yourself the question that every industry professional should be asking themselves: in those same ten years, have you taken advantage of the opportunities created by the fact that everyone now has this incredible, interactive commerce, lifestyle and communication device in their pocket?
That’s just one, context-setting example – but it proves the point that for players in the automotive aftermarket game, there are substantial opportunities out there made possible by the new technologies coming on-line around us.
Take, for instance, the revolution in interactive systems we’re seeing through the popularisation of augmented and virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI). The example mentioned at the beginning of this piece is an interesting one. Mercedes’ use of VR training for factory-floor technicians points to a near-future where training becomes a fully-immersive experience for mechanics. Apprentices will be able to learn the fundamentals on a whole range of virtual vehicles, pulling them apart without actually needing to have real cars in front of them. Professional technicians, too, will be able to update their skills by experimenting with new technologies on these ‘avatar vehicles’ as – or even before – they come to market, particularly if good data-sharing bridges are built between the OEMs and the aftermarket players.
Don’t write this off as a blue-sky pipe dream never to happen. Right now, I can buy a VR HeadSet for my iPhone online for $19.99. With a company like Mercedes-Benz having proved the value of simulation for technical training, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes an important part of the training process for the next-generation of automotive technicians.

In fact, companies operating in the service and repair space are already at it. Porsche USA recently extended a form of augmented reality technology into their workshops, supplying technicians with AR glasses that help mechanics solve problems which arise as they work on these incredibly-complex German automobiles. The idea is that service technicians can connect to a Porsche specialist at the company’s headquarters and be talked through a difficult repair job. The technician can use their headset’s in-built camera to stream a live video of the problem back to HQ, so the remote support worker can upload correct procedure info into the technician’s AR field of vision. The technology – called Tech Look Live – also supports field technicians executing service and repairs on the road. Porsche recognises that the glasses – which cost $2000 a piece – represent a sizeable investment, but they also believe the technology will become an important pillar of the automotive SMR industry, as it already has done in sectors where professionals need to receive information hands-free while working, such as on remote oil-wells and for doctors in surgery.
So again, don’t dismiss the futuristic element of this vision; instead, imagine how useful it will be for technicians in the aftermarket, as these systems soon become economically-viable and available at a small-business and consumer level.

The same applies for artificial intelligence. This tech has been slowly edging its way into our everyday, whether it’s in our iPhones (“Hey Siri, what’s on my calendar this morning?”) or in our Google Homes (“Hey Google, play my favourite song…”). Given these systems’ increasing popularity, it isn’t hard to believe that they are also finding a lot of favour in workplaces across the world, and that aftermarket should be in prime position to take advantage.
Imagine the set-up in tomorrow’s garage: you’ll
be able to have your AI ‘smart assistant’
device linked to a large screen above your hoist, allowing you to summon up critical job information hands-free as you work. Now it’ll just be a matter of asking, “Siri, give me the torque settings for a wheel nut on a 2018 Mercedes C200,” or “Google, show me a battery-cooling system schematic for a 2019 Tesla Model 3”. When you combine that with the e-commerce opportunities made possible by online booking and scheduling platforms, which can all be managed by these ‘AI smart assistants’, the mode of doing business in tomorrow’s workshop will be far more streamlined, more data-rich and ultimately more productive.
And frankly, all this can only mean one thing: if seized in its totality by enthusiastic minds, emerging technology can have a hugely-positive effect on how even conservative industries can do business. It’s just a question of watching the trends emerge in the “fringes” and being ready to act on them when they become relevant to your business. That kind of realistic, future-oriented thinking is a core requirement for all professionals with an eye for their own prosperity in a changing world – and it’s an attitude the aftermarket should be embracing with great enthusiasm.

Written by Harrison Boudakin for AutoMate Training, an industry leading provider of online, on-demand digital training.

Visit www.automatetraining.com for a free 14-day trial.