By Matthew Stock
Renting a car is often fraught with worry. If the car is damaged in any way, the renter could be in line for a hefty bill; even if the car was stationary at the time. But a novel sensing technology could spell the end of disputes over liability if a car is damaged by accurately determining who is to blame.
DropTag Drive, from development firm Cambridge Consultants, is a small tag that is fixed to the inside of a car's windshield and continually monitors all vehicle accelerations and impacts during the hire period. The technology is based on an existing condition monitoring device that was developed by Cambridge Consultants to track a parcel's location if it was damaged at any time in transit.
DropTag product manager Tom Lawrie-Fussey said the device could end the anxiety that surrounds car hire; letting people keep tabs on the vehicle when it's parked and help settle any arguments over who might be to blame in a crash.
"The key difference is effectively bringing a degree of accountability and trust to the whole scenario. So, we've probably all had the situation where we're returning the hire car; you have that uncertainty of are they going to spot something that you haven't seen on the body, is there a big cue, it's just the unknown of what's going to happen at this stage of my holiday or whatever position you're in. So what DropTag Drive is doing is basically removing all of that. So you have an app; at all times while you're using that car you can interrogate via the app the condition of the car," said Lawrie-Fussey.
The sensor is attached to the inside windshield of the vehicle. Lawrie-Fussey explained that this actually boosted the sensitivity of DropTag Drive to the extent that very low instances of impact could be detected: "We find that the windshield actually acts as a natural amplifier of what's happening on the car, which means we can get down to very, very low instances of scratching, impacting etc, etc. So we've done a lot of vehicle tests with the tag stuck to a whole variety of different cars, and we're very much down at the 1 or 2 mile-per-hour impact speed now. Often those sorts of impacts don't actually cause any damage to the car, but that's the level at which we're able to sense."
DropTag Drive uses Bluetooth technology and connects to a smartphone. It's 'always on' - sensing what is happening to the vehicle and sending the data to the driver and the car hire company via a smartphone app. The real-time data is compiled to produce an accurate picture of what the car goes through during the hire period.
"We also know a great deal about the context of what you're doing. So, for example, we know how many people have got in the car approximately by how many door closes we see. We know when the engine's on, we know when you've driven off etc. etc. The reason we're doing that is when, for example, you do have an incident, we're then very easily to say what was going on. So, yes you may have been driving, but you may have been stationary at the time. And if that's the case and someone hit you then again, you want to tell the hire car company that 'hang on, this really wasn't my fault'."
If no incidents are detected during the hire period, the app will give the driver the all-clear and they will be able to just drop off their car with the rental company.
The makers say the low-cost electronics and sophisticated power management mean, in high volumes, the cost for a hire car company works out at just £1 (1.6 USD) per tag per month. This includes precise sensing at a level of performance comparable to devices costing much more.
"It is a very sensitive, very subtle acceleration sensor. Not hugely dissimilar from what you'd expect to find in a smart phone. But because of the way we're mounting the device on to the windshield, because the device itself is so light, so small, we're able to have really a much better view of what's going on with the car. We can go to a much higher level of resolution, of sensitivity, to see things that - as far as we're aware - nothing else can really get close to," said Lawrie-Fussey.
The makers say the device has been comprehensively tested on a variety of car models and the app could be easily integrated into a rental company's existing mobile platforms. DropTag Drive, they say, gives rental companies real-time visibility of how its cars are being driven and suggest that car hire pricing could be adjusted according to whether a customer is a low-risk or high-risk driver.