RAC puts patrols on the data highway

STRANDED motorists will soon be greeted by RAC patrol crews packing electronic books instead of bulky motoring manuals, to speed up fault diagnosis and improve the rate of breakdowns repaired at the roadside.

The manuals contain thousands of A4 pages of diagnostics for every make and model of car likely to be encountered by the RAC's 1,250 patrols.

Not only is it awkward to carry this amount of information around on a motorcycle, there are problems finding (and keeping) the right page on a wet and windy hard shoulder.

The waterproof Panasonic CD-ROM unit on which the electronic book is based is about the size of a paperback and weighs less than two pounds.

Although it has a full Qwerty keyboard, the RAC system is designed so that patrol crew have to press only three keys for quick access to the right information, via a series of menus that show the contents of the system.

The units can store text and graphics - including electrical configurations, vehicle jacking and towing points, and electronic layouts of every type of vehicle on the road.

The RAC has tested the units with 40 patrols around the country and says the technology will go nationwide later this year.

The evidence of the pilot scheme is that increasing speed of access to information will mean faster response times and will increase the roadside fix rates from around 85 per cent to 90 per cent, because staff will have the confidence to attempt more complicated repairs.

In particular, flow charts are much easier to follow in the electronic book, where patrolmen use 'yes' or 'no' keys to move around the chart, rather than having to keep finding their place on the paper version.

The RAC says the electronic book will not render the unfixable fixable, but should enable roadside repairs in some situations where they were not practical with paper manuals because they took too long.

The electronic book also has environmental benefits. The RAC says it will save 30 million sheets of A4 paper in the first year - equivalent to 3,000 trees - rising to 55 million sheets a year within five years.

Like the paper manuals, the electronic book will be updated monthly, simply by issuing a new compact disc.

The software was developed for the RAC by Attica Cybernetics of Oxford, which specialises in electronic books.

Most of the company's work to date is in the education market, but Paul Furner, the production manager, says there is great scope for companies to replace technical manuals, directories and catalogues with electronic books.

At the moment though, he says, companies prefer to struggle on with manuals, because electronic books cost much more than paper equivalents. Developing the software costs at least pounds 10,000, and the CD- ROM units are around pounds 250 each.

Last year Attica completed a pilot project for British Rail in which the information needed by signalling engineers doing trackside repairs was turned into an electronic book, but BR decided not to go ahead with the project because of cost.

Panasonic began selling the CD-ROM units two years ago, but says that the time taken to develop software means that to date the RAC and British Rail are the only applications in the corporate sector.

The unit can hold the equivalent of 160,000 pages of A4 paper on one of its miniature 8cm discs (music CDs are 12cm). At the moment the RAC is using only a quarter of this and is now planning to use the rest of the space to make its patrolmen even more useful, with lists of local hotels, car dealerships and repair shops, and the entitlements of the RAC's 150 different membership schemes.

There is also an audio-function on the units, which will be used to play back various stages of complex diagnostic processes, leaving a patrolman working under the bonnet with both hands free to carry out the job.

The electronic book will also enable the RAC to give manufacturers better feedback about problems with their cars. Patrols look up fault codes in their manuals, which they then enter into the the RAC's rescue system from on-board computers. Introducing the electronic book is allowing the RAC to make the fault codes much more detailed, providing better information.

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