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The Connected Car

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The way Tanner Trosen tells the story, you can see why he’s a good salesman.

“You’ll notice it from the very first time you sit in it,” he says. “It’s like a sci-fi movie—I, Robot or something like that. The technology in this vehicle is incredible, just incredible.”

So, the story: This is last winter, the first time Trosen has test-driven the 2017 Cadillac CT6, and he wants to get the full experience. Within weeks, he’ll be responsible for selling it to customers at Rydell Chevrolet Buick GMC Cadillac in Grand Forks, N.D. (Yes, North Dakota; this detail will be important later.)

“The first thing you notice is how smooth it handles for a large sedan,” he says. “It’s the all-wheel steering; that’s the thing a customer will pick up on, but there’s so much to this vehicle. I start getting a feel for it all.”

The lane-departure assist system, the adaptive cruise control, perpendicular park assist, all of it.

“Then I’m on a fairly busy street and I turn on the parallel park assist,” he says. “I let go of the wheel, and [the vehicle] starts searching for a spot. It’s a bizarre feeling: It does everything for you; all you do is the gas and brake.

“And it finds this spot that looks to be the exact same size as the vehicle. No way am I parking it in there if I’m driving.”

But the vehicle alerts him, and reverses toward the parking spot. The steering wheel spins hard to the right. The vehicle, crunching snow under its tires, backs up. The steering wheel straightens, then cranks hard left. The steering wheel straightens again, and the vehicle moves forward slightly.

“And we’re in, as quick as that,” Trosen says. “I get out and there’s maybe a couple inches between the front bumper and the car ahead of me. It’s the same amount in the back. Perfectly parallel to the curb.”

The Cadillac CT6 and its sister series of sedan, the CTS, aren’t like the “old boats” many people still associate with the automaker, Trosen says. In fact, they couldn’t be more different—and it’s not just Cadillac salespeople like Trosen saying this.

“It’s a groundbreaking vehicle,” says Debby Bezzina, the managing director for the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The CTS is the only vehicle with connected vehicle technology rolling off the production line right now.”

It’s only one automaker, just one example, but, as Bezzina points out, connected and autonomous vehicle technology is coming and coming quickly, and it’ll change the way dealership fixed operations departments function—from the way they interact with customers to the education, training and modern tooling now required for service and repairs.

“People are starting to get a grasp for what vehicles can be capable of,” Bezzina points out, “and that changes the expectation and the perception from [vehicle owners]. Repairing or working on something like technology required for connected vehicles might not be any different for a technician than any other electric system. … But the technology changes the way [vehicle owners] look at their vehicles. It changes the way they view the industry.”

Granted, Trosen admits, parallel park assist isn’t anything revolutionary at this point—but it’s one of the first things a customer notices and asks about on test drives. It’s an autonomous feature that many consumers actually do understand. And it’s easy for Trosen to point to his story, him standing in the North Dakota cold, marvelling at the vehicle’s park job, to explain just how advanced vehicles have become.

“It’s amazing,” Trosen says. “But then I’m standing there and I think, ‘Wow, now I have to get out of there.’”

 

A Modern Mentality

Randy Sattler has the three-ringed binder in his desk. He and his team put it together, detailing each item—from training certificates to equipment lists to a runthrough of standardized processes—that was required to become a Cadillac CT6–certified collision repair facility.

“That was something we didn’t have to do but did to be prepared,” he says. “We wanted it to be all there and ready, so that we could go through and make sure we had everything in order.

“When we were approved (by Cadillac), we were the first and only shop in the western United States to have passed the inspection for a six-month period. It’s a serious deal, and it’s very, very stringent.”

A quick note on Sattler: He is Rydell’s collision manager at its Grand Forks’ body shop. And don’t underestimate him or his facility based on the address. Rydell Collision Center is considered by many to be one of the most operationally efficient collision repair shops in the country—and Sattler one of the industry’s more forward-thinking operators. You can check the numbers (the $7 million-per-year facility has a cycle time of 5.8 days and touch time of 4.8 hours per day, most of which is on heavy hits to larger vehicles; remember, this is North Dakota), but more anecdotally, Sattler and his team were early adopters in lean operational theories, they were among the first to jump into aluminum repairs and certification programs, and pioneers in gas-catalytic drying technology.
 

Advanced Drying Technology

Over the last several years, infrared technology has slowly been adopted in collision repair shops to dry and cure paint, primer and filler more quickly. Randy Sattler and his team at Rydell Collision were among the first five repair facilities in the country to implement a “full arch” drying system (the facility has two, as well as three smaller units). Rydell’s units utilize gas catalytic technology, and there are other manufacturers that offer electric options.

 

So, when other repairers across the country want to talk about what will be needed for modern body shops to properly fix modern vehicles, most turn to Sattler.

“For us, it’s just about making sure we have everything in place to correctly fix the vehicles our dealership sells,” he says. “Our customers expect that from us, and we have to be prepared to make that commitment in order to keep them coming back to us and to keep them happy.”

That’s where that binder came in. Before enrolling in the still relatively new Cadillac CT6 certification program, Sattler’s shop was already approved by General Motors and had been certified through the Nissan, Honda and Ford aluminum programs.
 

Certification for the Small Shop 

As part of a 68-dealership network, Randy Sattler’s Rydell Collision facility in North Dakota has a number of advantages over smaller competitors—one being capital to make investments.

“We are very blessed and fortunate here in that our focus can be solely on what’s best for the business and for repairing customers’ vehicles,” Sattler explains. “Smaller facilities don’t have the same ability to jump into certifications or other things like that, as we do.”

Sattler has a concept, though, that he feels could solve that issue for many smaller, individual collision repair facilities: Work together.

“Make the investment to get certified in your brand, or one of your brands,” he says, “and look to other collision repair facilities in your region or market to do the same for their brands. Work together as a referral network of sorts. Maybe one has the Nissan certification, another has Honda, another has Ford. If we’re making the investment to be that expert in one brand, work to get those referrals from other shops that are doing similar things. And in turn, give the referrals back to them.”


And this was why they created that three-ringed binder.

“We know that vehicles have become so complicated in recent years, and you can’t just use the same experience and knowledge to fix them as you could in the past,” he says. “For us, the CT6 isn’t like doing the Ford aluminum program. We’re in North Dakota; we get a lot of trucks in here. The return on that program was quick. With the CT6, it’s not as easily measureable, so the decision isn’t solely to be certified on that one vehicle. We want that mentality of being prepared, and having that part of our culture. ... It benefits us in all areas, not just working on this one vehicle.”
 

A Return on Certifications

Randy Sattler estimates that it cost Rydell Collision roughly $40,000 to become fully equipped and trained to pass through Ford’s aluminum repair requirements. But, “we’re in truck country up here,” Sattler, the shop’s manager, says, so the return was very quick.

“It seemed to be almost immediate on that,” he says.

The Cadillac CT6 program was very different, though.

"We might sell one of those per month—and that’s a pretty good goal, one or two of those,” he says. “So, the return might not be easily seen, and I’m not sure we can even put a timeframe on it at this point.”

Rydell Collision already had much of what was needed for the program thanks to its Ford, Nissan and Honda certifications, but still needed to make a roughly $30,000 investment just for the CT6.

“The return is going to be very different depending on your work mix and market,” he says. “Some programs, you’re looking for a return; some you’re doing it because it’s a necessity of the business. We want to be certified and equipped to repair all the vehicles we sell. It wasn’t an option. It was the right thing to do for the customer.”


Prepare for the Future

In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule that would require connected vehicle technology on all new light-duty vehicles. At the time, Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology “may very well prove to be the silver bullet in saving lives on our roadways.”

For this to be possible, all new vehicles would need to “speak the same language,” Bezzina explains. And that “language” is scheduled to be finalized in the near future. (The 90-day period in which the NHTSA collected opinions and comments from the industry as part of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ended shortly before Fixed Ops Business spoke to Bezzina in April.)

“Without getting too technical in it, it’s about finding a common platform for the vehicles to communicate on, so that a Cadillac can talk to a Chevy and a Ford and a Mercedes,” she says. “The timeline for this taking place would stretch several years into the future when we’ll have these vehicles rolling off production with this capability.”

Bezzina’s program in Ann Arbor, though, has demonstrated just how that environment can work. To be clear, the term “connected vehicle” isn’t synonymous with “autonomous vehicle,” but, Bezzina says, V2V technology could be the precursor to a truly autonomous future of vehicle operation.

The vehicles in the Ann Arbor program are retrofitted with connected technology that allows them to send signals to one another, and to 25 specific infrastructure sites throughout the area. Some of these sites are traffic lights, some are curves in the road—each is enabled with a device that “speaks” to the vehicle, relaying data that, for example, allows the vehicle to recognize when a light turns red, triggering the adaptive cruise control system in the vehicle and slowing it to a safe stop without any influence from a human driver.

“We’ve already witnessed instances where the technology prevented run-off-the-road situations on curves,” Bezzina says. “It works and it has been working for quite some time.”

As the government pushes to mandate technology in vehicles, Bezzina says her program is ramping up, adding another 40 infrastructure sites and delving more deeply into technology that could ultimately prevent pedestrians from being struck by vehicles.

“This sounds far off to many people, but it really isn’t,” she says. “The CTS already has connected technology; it can communicate with all these sites. We just need more vehicles like it.”

And that brings brings up another story that Trosen, Rydell’s Cadillac product specialist, likes to tell prospective buyers interested in the CTS or CT6.

“One of the features that people don’t fully grasp is the vehicle’s Super Cruise,” he says. “It’s facial recognition technology. I had a customer call me one afternoon—the day after she bought a CT6. She calls me up frantic and tells me how she had an extremely late night at work, and was really tired the next day. Well, she fell asleep while driving, and the Super Cruise kicked in. It recognized that she had fallen asleep, it turned on the emergency flashers, slowed down the vehicle, and pulled it over to the side of the road. She was safe, completely safe, and she couldn’t believe it. If I didn’t know better, I’d have a hard time believing it. It’s incredible. This is our future. It’s already here.”

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