Augmented Reality Service Manuals

This video link demonstrates Volkswagen’s Mobile Augmented Reality Technical Assistant (MARTA) app that recently received fair amount of blogosphere attention and coverage of the Inside AR conference in Munich last week, where Volkswagen’s Dr. Werner Schreiber demonstrated the Volkswagen XL1 vehicle service application.

I admit it’s not always easy to resist these eye candies. But all too often I read about and see demonstrations of augmented reality (AR) applications that, while visually appealing, do not depict a credible solution to a real world problem. They tend to represent what I often refer to as a romantic view of the environment or the business challenge they purport to alleviate.

I have seen this problem many times in the automotive service area. Years ago I founded a consortium of service professionals in the auto industry that eventually became SAE’s Service Technology Program Committee, which I originally chaired and continue to support today.  Over the years, I conducted several studies in which service technicians were asked about the most critical information challenges they face.  As you might expect, identifying and naming engine parts or knowing which direction to turn a wrench, as demonstrated in this MARTA video, were not among the concerns listed by service technicians.

Even Mataio, the co-developer of MARTA, seems to agree in a video depicting an AR-based Audi owner’s manual: “perhaps it’s too intuitive.”

So if service technicians do not need augmented reality tools to highlight part names, where else does AR can help?

Multiple studies I conducted over the years show that most repair tasks are fairly routine and technicians do not need guidance in removing and installing a faulty part. On average, about 85% of vehicles problems are diagnosed and repaired correctly and within the allotted time during the first visit to the dealership.

When a technician does need additional information, it is to help identify the faulty part rather than its name and how to replace it. In studies, over 60% of dealership technicians indicated that they often face an unfamiliar problem that requires time consuming diagnostic research. Effective service information should provide the technician with a complete context for diagnosing and troubleshooting vehicle problems, including known failure modes, recent service bulletins, guided diagnostics, and so forth.

Unfortunately, auto executives are not paying enough attention to the core issues surrounding vehicle service: warranty repair costs are high, averaging about 3% of sales, consumer satisfaction with repair is shaky, and quality of dealership experience has a significant impact on brand loyalty.   An industry study showed that management’s views and investments in serviced tools are misaligned with dealer service technicians, which may help explain Dr. Schreiber’s focus on snazzy AR tool.

That being said, there is no doubt that augmented reality and virtual reality technologies can deliver real value to service technicians in automotive and other industries. Two ideas, currently explored by the Service Technology Program Committee, are training for new technicians and/or new vehicle technologies, and safety. The latter is critically important as the number of vehicles using high-voltage electric propulsion is increasing, affecting not only service technicians, but also first responders.

Even when, or perhaps because, AR and other technology applications connote a somewhat romantic view of the world, they draw the attention of the mainstream media, suggesting higher degree of vehicle reliability and service performance. This is obviously good for the brand, but automakers should also invest in the fundamentals: accurate and timely task-specific service information that is easy to create and deliver to service technicians.