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Technology Newsmaker Q&A Ben Johnson

Thursday, June 18, 2015 - 07:00
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Ben Johnson, director of product management at Mitchell 1, has played a key role in several auto repair technology initiatives. In addition to overseeing the launch of Mitchell 1's ProDemand repair information solution, SureTrack diagnostic system, and Manager SE 6.5, he also serves on the Auto Care Association's Technology Standards Committee and chairs the multi-association Telematics Task Force.

What do you think is the biggest technology challenge the auto repair industry faces right now?

Driving efficiency and throughput in the shop. Consider that there are roughly 30 percent more vehicles available per service bay than there were not so many years ago. Also consider that the vehicles themselves continue to grow more sophisticated with the installed electronics and the networks supporting them. Finally, consider that our ultimate customer, the person who drove the car in the shop, expects that vehicle diagnosed and repaired the same day they brought it in, or at worst case the following day.

Today’s technician has a myriad of options of tools and information resources to help them diagnose and repair the vehicle. It can become overwhelming. So it might be that the biggest technological challenge the industry faces right now is technology itself.

Some more recent vehicle technology challenges of interest are the areas of lane detection, blind spot detection, backup cameras and adaptive cruise controls. While in the aftermarket we typically won’t see these systems with any regularity for a few years yet, the collision side of the industry has to deal with them today. If a vehicle is in a collision, or even if the windshield needs to be replaced, these systems must be calibrated, and that can be a very tedious and precise operation. Today, a lot of shops are sending that work to the dealership and even the dealerships have challenges due to unfamiliarity with these emerging technologies.

What about within Mitchell 1? What do you think are the biggest technological obstacles the company faces as it develops and rolls out new products? Conversely, what are some of the most promising technology developments the company is investigating?

At Mitchell1, we recognized several years ago the then-looming challenge of dealing with massive amounts of content and in making that content quickly “find-able” by those who need it. We recognized the value of real-world diagnostic and repair information generated by professional technicians. That industry information is now as important as the OEM content we’ve been delivering for decades.

The challenge of being able to house the content really wasn’t that onerous. The real challenge was presenting information in a way that makes sense to our customers. We invested in a “big data” system that allows us to present information in new and innovative ways, but in a consistent format. We also invested in new search technologies so that our users can quickly navigate to the exact detail they need, whether that’s industry content or OEM information.

We also realized our users are adopting the new inexpensive tablet computing technologies. We believe they should have the choice to use mobile technology, so we developed a view of our content that is optimized for tablet devices. We also extended our shop management product to the tablet with Mobile ManagerPro.

We continue to refine and enhance ProDemand and the authoring tools used to generate the content, but we feel we are well positioned to supply information to our users in innovative ways for years to come.

Telematics remains a key issue for many companies in the aftermarket. Where do you see industry telematics efforts headed over the next several years?

Telematics continues to be the most discussed topic at most industry meetings that I attend. There are a variety of initiatives currently in play, both in trying to work with the OEMs to give the aftermarket access to the information the built-in telematics devices can access and third parties utilizing the OBD2 port to install their own telematics devices.

Ultimately, I believe that having the built-in telematics content available will open up all sorts of new opportunities. I don’t see that capability being available for several more years. In the meantime, the retrofit devices continue to amaze me with their capabilities. The technology seems to be pretty robust, but what still needs to emerge is the right business model –– “who pays for what?” The infrastructure, carrier costs and the devices themselves carry cost and all companies ultimately need to be profitable. Plus, consumers have voted with their pocketbooks that they aren’t interested in spending a lot on what current telematics offerings provide.

Until those challenges are answered, I believe most of the advances in this area will be realized in the fleet management sector.

For repairers, what do you see as some of the most important technology developments they should be watching?

This is probably the hardest question to answer. The reality is, as much as they would like to, shops can’t stay up to speed on all the new technologies that are presenting themselves. If they tried, they would spend more time in training classes than they would servicing vehicles, which would add to the capacity problem they’re facing.

Most of these technologies are pretty reliable, so from a repairer’s perspective it makes sense to focus on what breaks. Unfortunately, many times shops only learn what breaks when the vehicle pulls into the bay.

My advice to the repair community is to align themselves with a good knowledgebase and network of techs who can “shout out” when they begin encountering technologies that seem to be problematic. Using that “crowd-sourcing” method to help triage and leverage each other’s experience helps everybody. They should also keep up to speed with the new technologies through training when it’s available, and of course, keep their scan tools, information resources and other equipment up to date so they’re always working with the latest tools and data.

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