Paul Bhardwaj was working in his auto repair garage, GB Autos & Trucks on Toronto’s Queensway, when he got a panicky call from a customer who spotted a warning light on her dash. She wanted to know whether she should stop driving immediately.
Instead of sending a tow truck, Bhardwaj linked to her car from his computer and quickly determined that one of the tires was very low on pressure. The diagnosis was done in minutes, and the driver had air added at a garage close to her.
Bhardwaj was able to connect to his customer’s car using a new-to-consumer technology known as predictive maintenance (PM). PM uses internet-connected software to monitor the vehicle’s critical systems – everything from batteries to brakes – to alert drivers to emerging problems before they escalate into roadside crises.
GB Autos has become a PM test site because of a close family connection. Bhardwaj’s son Shiva, a University of Waterloo computer engineering graduate, is founder of Pitstop Connect, the predictive maintenance software system the garage has been using.
Most drivers spend little time fretting over what should be serviced and when. Even regular oil changes get overlooked. People need a nudge now and then to ensure the cars they count on won’t let them down. Think of predictive maintenance programs as the equivalent of electronic nudges.
Pitstop Connect uses a simple transmitter plugged into the OBD II portal – the latest version of the standard on-board diagnostic socket found on every vehicle made since 1988 – and monitors its components in real time. It samples data every 10 seconds from 30 sensors that monitor the engine components, transmission, electrical system, brakes, tires and battery. Sophisticated algorithms analyze the data and predict potential failure of critical components, so drivers can get help before they are stranded by the side of the road.
“It can predict three weeks ahead when a battery will fail,” said Shiva Bhardwaj, 30, CEO of Pitstop Connect.
Pitstop is providing the transmitters at no charge to encourage adoption. The company charges a monthly subscription per vehicle. It is also planning to license its software. PM is new to consumers but has grown in popularity over the past decade with fleet owners who use it to monitor the state of vehicles on the road. Fleet operators that have adopted PM report reductions in downtime of as much as 25 per cent.
The tool is also able to measure engine oil life and advise a driver when it’s time to take the car in for regular maintenance, Shiva Bhardwaj said. Drivers can potentially save money by postponing service until it is needed, rather than adhering to a fixed schedule.
The internet connectivity that enables PM is also the technology that auto makers are using to provide over-the-air updates to computerized control systems and embedded navigation systems.
Auto makers have not yet embraced PM; only Tesla offers full remote diagnostics for its vehicles at no extra charge. General Motors offers free monthly updates through the OnStar system, but for real-time notifications on key systems, owners must subscribe to GM’s OnStar Remote Access Plan.
Consumer-focused PM is just getting started. Stratio Automotive, a Portugal-based provider of automated vehicle testing and maintenance, is targeting vehicle manufacturers and heavy-duty vehicle fleet operators. And Aurora Labs, a Tel Aviv-based developer, is creating what it calls self-healing software – that is, software that detects a malfunction and tries to correct it – for connected cars.
Shiva Bhardwaj wants auto makers to make PM standard on new cars but says it will be equally useful for independent garages and even do-it-yourself mechanics. Everyone – including independent garages and non-professionals – has access to OBD II readers, which are sold at most auto parts stores. Basic devices cost as little as $30, but full-featured items are several hundred dollars.
“By 2025, every new vehicle will have this intelligence built in,” he said. Because the system connects through the OBD II portal, any vehicle can be retrofitted.
Pitstop recently raised capital from Sensata Technologies, a global industrial technology company, to expand market reach, enhance product features and build additional prediction algorithms.
Pitstop’s customers include international auto parts makers Aisin, Fleet Complete and Continental AG. Pitstop recently partnered with Geotab, a commercial telematics provider, to equip fleets with maintenance software.
Bhardwaj said the predictive algorithms are 90-per-cent accurate or better, although they improve as they “learn” the patterns of any vehicle model new to the system.
Nathan Reynolds, a journeyman mechanic at Mechanigo Inc. in Calgary, said a device like Pitstop’s could have value, but its utility is limited to the sensors built into a particular vehicle. “If you get a ’420′ error [code], that tells you the catalytic converter has failed,” he said. “But it doesn’t tell you why. [Or] if it’s a misfire, you still have to come in for a diagnosis.”
But Reynolds said it could be useful for people who tend to ignore regular maintenance.
“I’ve seen people just run the oil down to zero, and then they burn the engine out,” he said. An app like Pitstop’s might make them pay more attention.
Bhardwaj’s father Paul remembers the moment his son expressed interest in PM. Shiva was 13 when a warning light came on during a family trip to Ottawa 17 years ago. His son told him, “I’m going to develop something so you can tell what’s wrong right away.”
During his studies at Waterloo, Bhardwaj began to consider how to aggregate the data collected by the OBD II system. He said he met William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., in 2015 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, pitched the PM idea to him, and received $150,000 in seed money. Pitstop maintains a relationship with Ford on potential future products, Bhardwaj said.
For all its promise, PM comes with some of the same concerns that come with all connective technologies. One is hackability. If vehicles’ computers can be accessed remotely, then there is a risk that hackers could also get into those systems and disrupt the vehicle’s function.
There are also times when a technician won’t agree with the algorithm’s diagnosis, or the sensors or network hardware malfunction. To avoid unnecessary trips to the garage, Shiva Bhardwaj recommends drivers defer getting noncritical warnings addressed until they bring the vehicle in for regular maintenance.
Privacy is another concern because data gathered can include the vehicle’s location, driver’s daily route, or personal details. Bhardwaj said Pitstop adheres to SOC 2 privacy standards, the same security protocols used by Canada’s banks for online transactions.
The upcoming generation of electric vehicles will essentially become “a phone on wheels,” Bhardwaj said, in the sense that they will be connected all the time, receiving over-the-air updates and integrating predictive maintenance, routing and recharging functions.