A mechanic working at an American Audi dealership is stumped by a problem with a car.
Solving the problem would be so much easier if a technician from the manufacturing plant in Germany could look over his shoulder, hear the noise the car was making and see under the hood.
Well, actually, it's not.
Audi, a German automobile manufacturer, has been testing telepresence robots in 68 dealerships across the United States. They're also piloting a few in Mexico, Singapore and Germany -- but the main test bed is in the U.S.
The company is using VGo robots , made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Technologies to improve communication, save money and get cars repaired faster.
A pilot program began in 2014, and now a telepresence robot is planned for every one of the approximately 292 U.S. dealerships by the end of 2016. Audi executives say the robots are already helping their human workers do a better job.
"If the dealer has a telepresence unit, [the robots] can follow the mechanic to a car and work with them as if I was standing shoulder to shoulder with him," said Brian Stockton, general manager of technical support for Audi of America. "We can see what [the mechanic] is seeing. We can record what he's recording... We can do this seamlessly and quickly instead of going back and forth with emails."
VGo is a wheeled, robotic system that runs on a battery and uses Wi-Fi. The remote user controls the system, giving it commands to move to where it needs to be, use the two onboard cameras and give the user live streaming video.
The robot is controlled by the remote user -- in this case, the technician based in Germany, in most cases.
The robot also has a screen where a human head would be, allowing the remote user to see what's in front of it and enabling people near the robot to see the remote user's face.
"It's making my job easier and quicker," said Lee Ludolph, a shop foreman and technician at an Atlanta-area Audi dealership. "We can get answers quicker because [factory technicians] can see what we're seeing. It's like they're standing beside us. Before it was a phone call and we had to take pictures or sound recordings and upload it to them. This way, they can see and hear it all at one time."
Vecna, which acquired New Hampshire-based VGo Communications and its telepresence robots last July, has its VGo robots used at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital for patient interaction, as well as by JetBlue for customer service. NASA's also used these robots to help remote employees participate in meetings, among other things.
A VGo robot was even sent to a medical unit in Liberia in the fall of 2014 so it could be used to help treat patients fighting the deadly outbreak of Ebola .
The telepresence robot was used to enable doctors and nurses working outside of quarantine areas to observe and communicate with patients inside the quarantine areas. It increased patient care, while keeping caregivers safely away from contaminated areas.
Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, said it's a great idea that will probably spread to other companies and other industries.
"You would think that if doctors can heal patients from a distance, mechanics should be able to fix cars that way even easier," he told Computerworld. "Technology empowers every industry to use telepresence to solve problems better and more affordably than ever. This is a very innovative idea. It is a very exciting idea. The only thing now is to watch how well it works."
Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, says he's glad companies are starting to put telepresence to work.
"Telepresence robots were created around a decade ago but it has taken folks a long time both to get the technology to a point where it was reliable and cheap, and to figure out how to use it properly," said Enderle. "This is kind of what telepresence robots were created for."
He also thinks this technology will only increase in use and usefulness.
"These things are pretty rudimentary right now, but expect them to evolve quickly now that they have found a better purpose and eventually be far more capable and often far more human-looking in the near-term future," said Enderle.
Some tech bumps
Despite the positive prognosis for telepresence robots, there have been bumps in the road with Audi's robotic telepresence project.
Ludolph noted that they had to work out some kinks with their dealership network to get the VGo system working well there.
"We had some issues in the beginning with the Wi-Fi system in our store," he explained. "Our IT guys had to straighten it out. They had to update their Wi-Fi to a 5.0 spec. Before it was 2-point something. They had to open up some ports. After they did that, it worked flawlessly."
Each of Audi's dealerships has its own network, with often different Wi-Fi and security settings, along with heavy security.
However, there also has been a human side to adjusting to the new robots.
Ludolph noted that it has been tough for some of the technicians to get used to being around and working with a robot.
"I'm not going to lie. It's different," he said. "Even some of the newer guys who come to work and see it driving itself around are like, 'Am I seeing this?' It's kind of weird because it feels like you're talking to a wall. You see a face but it's still kind of weird talking to a computer screen. I don't normally do that a lot. I don't even do FaceTime on my cell phone."
But after using the robot two or three times and seeing how much time and effort he could save, Ludolph said he was won over and adjusted to his new robotic co-worker.
Now that they're more familiar with the robotic system and they've got the kinks worked out, Stockton said they're looking to use the robots as training tools, as well as to help with repairs.
Factory technicians can also use the telepresence machines to communicate with shop foremen around the world, updating them on technical issues or new plans.