At last year's CES technology expo in Las Vegas, John Carlstrom of Ford Motor Co. encountered touch-screen kiosks that allow consumers to get vehicle information from automakers or order food from interactive menus.
"I was intrigued by the range of self-service kiosks deployed by various industries and wondered how such technology could be adapted to benefit Ford customers," says Carlstrom, an information technology product manager at the automaker.
Building on the idea, Ford contacted longtime partner Panasonic Corp., a leading developer of kiosk technology. The two companies, along with software provider GoMoto, created what they call the Smart Service Kiosk.
Ford is testing the device at a Michigan dealership. It allows customers to drop off and pick up their vehicles, and pay for service, outside a dealership's normal hours.
Tom Hodges, manager of global dealer connectivity at Ford, says the kiosk is designed to appeal to customers who have schedule constraints, prefer to do things on their own timetable or want to avoid a long line when a service department is busy.
At the 24/7 kiosk, a customer enters his or her name and address on the touch screen or scans a driver's license. He or she then enters an email address and phone number as well as vehicle information, chooses a personal identification number for later pickup, selects desired services from a menu and deposits the key.
The customer receives an email confirmation with a QR code for pickup. After the dealership completes the service, the customer returns, scans the QR code, enters the PIN, pays for the service by credit card and retrieves the key.
Ford began testing the kiosk in January at LaFontaine Ford in Birch Run, Mich. The store opened in December, replacing a longtime dealership nearby.
Ford is extending the kiosk's initial 90-day trial. Hodges said the automaker hasn't decided whether to conduct the test at other dealerships.
About 19 customers have used the kiosk, says Daren Kinder, service manager at LaFontaine Ford.
His department writes about 350 repair orders a month.
Kinder says the store advertises the kiosk on its website. Customers "are not really sure of it until they use it," he adds, but says it has attracted positive responses.
"We can tell them we have a kiosk and they're like, "OK, great,' because everyone is so accustomed to the old way of going about it, using the door slot," Kinder says.
Matt O'Connor, vice president of Panasonic System Communications Co. of North America, says he isn't worried about customers' slow embrace of the technology.
"A key drop is a natural function of a dealership today," O'Connor says. "But remote payment and pickup is not something that they're as accustomed to.
"So as the products become deployed, you could have very similar experience to the original ATM adoption," he says. "It was a process, not a specific event."
Kinder says the remote payment and pickup option makes the kiosk painless for customers. "You could essentially drop off, service a vehicle, pay and pick up after hours, and not see anyone at the store," he says.
But Robert Atwood, a management instructor at the NADA Dealer Academy, says dealerships that contemplate installing the kiosk need to be cautious not to lose the relationship between customer and service adviser.
"The kiosk will work if and only if during the day, the service adviser calls the customer when the vehicle is complete and goes over the bill," Atwood says.
Kinder says that after an after-hours customer drops off a vehicle, for which there is designated space on the dealership lot, a service adviser calls the customer.
The adviser asks for more detail about the service the customer seeks and discusses findings from an initial walkaround. Later, the adviser contacts the customer to address any needs identified in the multipoint inspection or to go over the bill.
Payment for the Smart Service Kiosk hasn't been established by Ford or by Panasonic, which owns the technology for the device. It's not yet clear whether dealerships would buy or lease the device.
O'Connor says Panasonic could supply similar technology to other automakers.
"We have a tight relationship with Ford, and we are providing a level of exclusivity with Ford for this specific version," O'Connor says. "We do plan on providing the industry other solutions."
Several years ago, Hodges says, he and his boss had tried to think up a device for picking up lease vehicles in the Ford parking garage.
They wanted a key-retrieval process with capabilities similar to those of an ATM, as opposed to merely dropping a key down a chute or picking it up from a push-button lockbox. But their idea "didn't really get legs" and died, Hodges says.
"I found it almost kind of ironic that somebody else in the company came up with this idea," Hodges says. "It was roughly 10 years ago that I had that conversation, and all of a sudden, this thing comes dropping out of the sky and landed back in my lap to be the business lead on."