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Venerable British motoring institution set to revolutionise the B2B telematics market


via Flickr © didbygraham (CC BY 2.0)

  • RAC moving from a reactive, to a proactive and ultimately predictive breakdown service.
  • Acquires Nebula Systems and its award-winning MECH5 technology.
  • Focus on Big Data and analytics plus real-time vehicle diagnostics and telematics​.

The Royal Automobile Club (RAC), founded in the summer of 1897, is a venerable institution set up at the time when horseless carriages were such rare and strange beasts on the highways and byways of Britain that they were widely blamed for causing miscarriages in real horses, preventing cows from giving milk, stopping hens from laying eggs and generally terrorising the pedestrian population.

In due course though "motoring' became a popular pastime for the RAC's well-heeled members and as the number of automobiles on the road increased so too did the number of breakdowns and accidents. As a result an "associate section" was founded to provide club members with roadside assistance. Later, the RAC incorporated its associate section into a company, 'R.A.C. Motoring Services Ltd.', which, in the public mind, quickly became synonymous with Royal Automobile Club. That notion persists amongst the Brits to this very day even though the original RAC was and still is, a private members club. How's that for the power of the brand?

The RAC club members sold the 'Motoring Services' business in 1999 and today RAC Ltd., is a British automotive services company headquartered in the English midlands providing roadside assistance to its 8 million members as well as general insurance and other financial services. The RAC attends some 2.5 million roadside breakdowns a year and has a massive database comprising tens of millions of records going back many years.

Now, of the RAC's business units, RAC Telematics, announced the acquisition of the specialist vehicle diagnostics company Nebula Systems. Nick Walker, the MD of RAC Telematics commented: “The acquisition of Nebula Systems is the first step in a series of developments that will lead to the RAC moving from a reactive, to a proactive and ultimately predictive breakdown service. This is a deal that will give our telematics systems much greater capability and will really position the RAC as leaders in vehicle status data."

He added, "The RAC Telematics system will provide complete clarity into the health and behaviour of vehicles [and will permit vehicle owners to be] "proactive about dealing with issues before they develop into the kind of problems that could take a vehicle off the road. This will help to reduce costs and downtime."

Newish start-up Nebula Systems, (it was formed in 2013) invented and developed MECH5, a cloud-based vehicle data and diagnostic platform which has won several awards for technical excellence. Nebula's CEO, Andrew Steer (and how apt a moniker is that for a connected car company?) said, "The MECH5 data and diagnostic platform will help to revolutionise the B2B telematics market."

From the horseless carriage to the driverless car

The RAC is in a race with its rivals, the Automobile Association (AA) and Green Flag, to develop an advanced early-warning system that will be able to alert a driver of a pending breakdown or vehicle malfunction before it happens - and it's a tad more sophisticated than a flashing red light on a dashboard display. And anyway once the MIL (malfunction indicator lamp) is lit, the damage has already been done and it's too late anyway.

The RAC's system will be based on combining telematics with historical breakdown data to predict the  likelihood of vehicle faults and advise drivers of them before they cause a problem. As Walker added: “Our data tells you the top three things likely to go wrong with a vehicle type, make and model of a certain year and mileage. We’re normally right because we see it all the time. If you add the ability to electronically diagnose and look for fault codes, which we do with every breakdown, then feed it with live telematics data and diagnostic codes, all of a sudden you’re able to extract from that level of history what’s likely to happen to that vehicle over time.”

It seems a far cry from way the original RAC worked but the organisation has been at the forefront of the development of the motor industry and motor sport both in the UK and overseas for almost 120 years now. Back in 1902 it campaigned vigorously and effectively for the relaxation of the 'absurd' maximum speed limit of 14 miles per hour imposed by the "Locomotives on Highways Act" of 1896 and in 1905 became the governing body for motor sport in Britain and, in 1926, organised the first British Gran Prix at Brooklands race track in Surrey.

In 1901 the RAC introduced uniformed mobile patrols with the patrolmen wearing a uniform very to similar the military police of the day - including tailored jodhpurs! The patrolmen were part of a martial structure of corporals, sergeants and officers. They drove Matchless motorcycles with sidecars containing a tool kit, fanbelts, engine hoses, and cans of spare petrol.

Until the late 1920s the control offices could only contact the mobile patrolmen by telephone, so they spent a lot of time hanging around outside public telephone boxes waiting to be called out. However, in 1957, five years after our present Queen ascended to the throne, they were equipped with radio sets for two way contact with their local headquarters. Yes, that was mobile comms, 'New Elizabethan' style. The RAC might be knocking on in years , but it has been 'with it' from the start.

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