The Key to Car Sales

By Adam Stone

August 09, 2006

A Silicon Valley car dealer uses a combo of Wi-Fi, RFID and electronic lockboxes holding vehicle keys to increase the number of test drives.

When it comes to wireless mesh networks, media attention over the past year has focused almost solely on municipal deployments, and with good reason. There's something exciting about seeing big and small cities rolling out widespread wireless connectivity for emergency response and public Web browsing.

But there are other mesh uses at play, a little more mundane, but no less significant. Warehouses, building-supply yards, car lots -- all are looking for connectivity that avoids physical obstructions, delivers high security and spares the expense of running cable.

Take, for instance, the Bob Lewis Automotive Family in Silicon Valley. The car dealership has streamlined its operations, improved security and pared down paperwork thanks to a network that uses Wi-Fi relays to plug salesmen into a mesh of Ethernet nodes.

Firetide vice president of marketing and communications Mike Downes says his company rolled out the network to solve a number of problems for the car dealership. First, they didn't want to trench Ethernet cable all over the lot just to install access points at the far ends, so a mesh backhaul like Firetide's was perfect.

But why did they need Wi-Fi in the lot at all?

Dealers sell more cars when customers take test drives, yet salesmen were stumbling over a process that forced them to run back and forth to the office to get keys, which in turn had to be checked out before the wheels could turn. "It took a long time, and it kind of ruined the moment because of the delay in getting the key," Downes says.

The delay gave customers the opportunity to shrug off the test drive, and that was costing the dealership money.

The system caused inaccuracies, too. Hurried salesmen might be sloppy about the paperwork. No one knew for sure which cars had been driven and which were just taking up space on the lot.

"They wanted some way to increase the number of test drives on the car lot, because the more test drives they take, the more cars they sell," Downes says.

And so Firetide mounted nodes to lamp posts around the lot, forming a property-wide wireless infrastructure.

lockboxAbout 60 cars on the lot are equipped with a Wi-Fi-enabled lockbox, specifically the KeyWhere RFID system developed by Performance Analytics in nearby Palo Alto.  

Wi-Fi doesn't open the box. A salesman enters a PIN and uses a keycard to retrieve the ignition key from the lockbox, then starts the test drive, with no delay and no paperwork. However, a Wi-Fi interface inside each lockbox transmits data — specifically, whether the key is present or not, and if not, whose keycard was used to take it — from the box to access points attached to the mesh network. That data travels back to a Web-based application running in the main office. Using it, management can do more than just record-keeping.

"Because all of the information is recorded electronically, the data can then be manipulated," Downes says. "Then the dealership can determine: how many times has this salesperson done a test drive with a customer? If it's just one a day, maybe they are not performing the way they should."

Likewise, the system allows for more sophisticated inventory management. "They'll be able to see at a glance that no one has driven this car in a month or so," Downes says. "The dealership can make business decisions based on that information." They could lower the price, or move to auction any car that sits too long, for example.

The backhaul mesh network not only eliminates the need to install cabling around the property, but also opens up the possibility of additional uses in the future. These might include video surveillance on the property — Firetide nodes will let you plug in any Ethernet-based IP tool, like a camera — as well as Internet access for the showrooms.

Ironically, Downes says it was the Wi-Fi access points connecting to the mesh backhaul that caused the biggest problems in installation.

Firetide prides itself on what it does with mesh backhaul, after all. "We are the only provider that focuses on the backhaul -- solid backhaul," says Downes. "The other providers typically have the Wi-Fi application over a mesh backhaul. They don't focus on the mesh as much as we do."

Thus, in the past, Firetide would always recommend that customers buy third-party access points that would connect to the Firetide mesh nodes. However, despite the ready availability of access points these days, it was hard to find an AP that met their particular specifications. The company wanted something rugged, with powerful radios and tight security, as well as 16 virtual access points in order to be able to run multiple distinct types of traffic through a single AP. It also had to be possible to operate the access points through Firetide's own software.

"We were actually quite surprised ourselves," Downes says. "There are so many indoor access points that are not expensive and that have gobs of features, so we were quite surprised to find these outdoor access points that didn’t have all the features that we needed."

At Bob Lewis, they used ValuePoint's outdoor APs, which did the job. However, this, along with other customers' demands for compatible APs, led to Firetide creating their own access points. This week, the company announced a line of modular Hotpoint APs targeting enterprises and bigger – think municipal – networks. They plug directly into the mesh nodes outside to provide client connections the mesh doesn't handle. There's also an indoor unit that has exactly the same guts -- the only difference is the enclosure.



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