Why Audi of America is Hiring Robotic Repair Advisors

By Judy Quinn |  July 9, 2014

The auto industry has long relied on robots to rivet, paint, and weld. But Audi of America is bringing on a new kind of robot that can offer guidance on vehicle repairs. Last month, Audi of America’s Michigan-based technical support team introduced Audi Robotic Telepresence (ART), a customized version of a mobile robot made by VGo Communications, at 18 of its dealerships.

ART is a remote-controlled, wifi-connected telepresence tool that allows Audi’s expert technicians at headquarters, officially known as Technical Field Managers (TFMs), to inspect and help service vehicles as if they were standing alongside local dealer technicians. Unique to ART’s design (and exclusive to Audi for a two-year window), the robot includes an attached handheld camera and borescope, which allows the remote operator to peer into difficult-to-reach parts of the vehicle like the engine. ART also has a small display screen “face,” so that the dealer technician sees the TFM’s visage on screen, instead of just hearing a disembodied, HAL-like voice. (An off-the-shelf version of the VGo bot costs $6,000-7,000, and a subscription package for service and support is $1,200 per year. But a VGo exec tells us the two additional cameras increase the price.)

“We are seeking to knock down the walls of distance,” says Brian Stockton, general manager for technical support at Audi of America. “We wanted to see what they were seeing. They get a face-to-face experience in seconds.”

As Stockton describes it, the ART project was born about two years ago, in response to an executive leadership challenge to keep improving customer satisfaction. Assessing data drawn from some 8,000 calls received from dealerships each month requesting some level of technical support, Stockton and his team realized that the best dealer feedback stemmed from when expert technicians worked together with local technicians. Stockton asked his team to search for ways to expand upon that scenario, including leveraging new technologies that would help cut down on the frequency, cost, and “volatility” of TFMs jumping in a car or even hopping a flight to perform such consultations.

As often occurs in idea incubation, the team had to shift gears a bit before alighting on its ART solution. “We had a different idea the outset — to take over just one of a dealer’s service bays with cameras. Then we realized that we needed a more mobile solution,” recalls Kevin Guerin, manager, technical assistance. Even once roving telepresence was identified as a better fit, “there really wasn’t anything in the market for our specific needs,” he says. The team did research on a number of telepresence vendors, many serving primarily the education and healthcare sectors, before aligning with VGo to work on the custom-built system.

ART is currently being pilot tested in 18 Audi dealerships that have high service volume. Stockton has a target to roll out ART to about 100 of its 281 dealerships rather quickly, since “we did extensive testing up front; our pilot really isn’t the typical pilot.” The department has determined that its metrics of success for this innovation are “based on two factors: speed to access vehicles [i.e., getting a TFM to examine them] and diagnostic accuracy,” says Stockton. “This results in an overall reduction in time needed to repair the customer’s vehicle.” He expects customer wait times to reduce quite significantly thanks to ART. “We’ve already had a number of cases where we saved time, where we would have had to send out an expert in the past,” he says.

ART isn’t without its challenges. Audi’s independently-owned dealers often have their own specific “last mile” technology issues, although Guerin says that’s simply “part of the checklist” in its on-going dealer outreach. And Stockton scoffs at media reports that suggest that the intent of ART is to eventually eliminate the need for local technicians altogether. Instead, Stockton believes that by allowing more collaboration between the local technicians and the more senior TFMs, local technicians will have a faster learning curve. “The additional time savings will enable our TFMs to spend more time on dealer technical coaching and counseling,” he says.