DETROIT - General Motors' Service Technology Group is testing a portable learning system that is designed to help dealership technicians make repairs faster and more reliably.
'Smart Mentor' is a small, wearable computer that recognizes voice commands. It guides a technician through diagnostics and repairs with text, video and audio instruction.
James Roach, senior project engineer in service research at the Service Technology Group, said the knowledge needed to service vehicles has become so vast that technicians cannot be expected to retain it all. For instance, GM service manuals total about 120,000 pages; that is expected to expand to 200,000 pages by 2000.
'Smart Mentor is based on the training principle that if you need to do something and you apply it right away and it's relevant to your job and you get immediate feedback, you learn much, much deeper,' Roach said.
Smart Mentor was developed by a consortium that includes the Service Technology Group; Ray-theon Co. (which bought the defense business of GM's Hughes Electronics Corp.); Interactive Solutions Inc., a Florida hardware and software company; the U.S. Army National Guard; and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Smart Mentor is the first effort of that consortium. It uses the GM Service Technology Group's meth-odology and Interactive Solution's hardware and software. The other members of the consortium are developing applications of Smart Mentor to repair other equipment such as tanks, aircraft and medical equipment.
Roach said the Service Technology Group will refine Smart Mentor based on feedback from the dealership service technicians in the pilot program. When Smart Mentor will be available in dealership service departments depends on whether technicians embrace it or whether it needs more work, he added.
The final product probably will be pocket-sized, and the monitor could be incorporated into headgear or eyeglasses worn by the technician. Roach said it is too early to determine what Smart Mentor will cost.
A technician using the system wears a headset with a microphone and a waist-mounted pouch that holds the four-pound computer. Because the system recognizes speech instructions, a technician does not have to type. Roach said it takes about 10 minutes to learn to use Smart Mentor.
FOR NOVICES, VETERANS
The system can be used both by novice technicians who need step-by-step instruction and by veterans who want to skip ahead to steps on which they need help.
A green light on the screen means that Smart Mentor is 'listening;' a red light means it is listening only for certain commands to reactivate it; a yellow hourglass icon means it is hearing sound.
The command 'Wake up' garners the response 'What do you want to do?'
Upon hearing the command ''97 Seville charging,' the system shows a video of the charging system while a voice explains the system step-by-step.
Three Cadillac dealerships are testing Smart Mentor: Suburban Cadillac in Troy, Mich.; Coast Cadillac in Sarasota, Fla.; and Lindsay Cadillac in Washington D.C. The pilot program runs through December.
Larrie Mellott, a service technician at Suburban Cadillac who is using Smart Mentor, said the system is user-friendly and the information is easy to access.
'Whenever I get a chance,' he said, 'I take it home and play around with it.'