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GPS brings AAA quicker

To many stranded motorists who call AAA everyday in the US, the worst part about being broken down is waiting for rescue. That wait could stretch on seemingly forever as dispatchers, often in an office miles away, struggled to match the caller’s position with the nearest service truck. The automobile association looked to the heavens for help.

What it found was GPS. The satellite-based navigational technology, once the domain of the U.S. military, is now an increasingly sought-after tool for businesses that must move products swiftly or track their whereabouts. In AAA’s case, GPS is employed to locate the closest truck. Drivers shaved about 10 minutes off the average 42-minute wait in a yearlong test run in Philadelphia, and officials expect similar results in the Baltimore area, where GPS was rolled out this month as part of a multiyear plan to cover the Mid-Atlantic.

“We’re still working out the kinks, but every little thing that helps us get there faster is a good thing,” said Adrian Casey, who has been driving a AAA battery truck in Maryland for about a year. “The single biggest problem is that people don’t always know where they are, and right now, the technology can’t help us with that.”

But as cars and cell phones are increasingly equipped with GPS capabilities, Casey noted, people stuck on the side of an unfamiliar road won’t need to know. A GPS receiver can pinpoint a user’s location by measuring the distance to 24 satellites orbiting Earth and various stations on the ground. Distance is determined by the time it takes for radio waves to bounce among them. A master control station in Colorado Springs, Colo., computes the data.

Uses for the GPS system, created by the government in the 1970s, have been expanding since it became commercially available about two decades ago. But products have proliferated in the past few years as the government allowed nonmilitary users to get precise data. Companies are always searching for better ways to serve customers with faster service or more information, said Martin Dresner, a professor of logistics, business and public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

At AAA Mid-Atlantic, when a call comes from one of 3.4 million members in the six-state region – about 4,000 calls a day from Maryland and Delaware alone – a dispatcher uses the GPS system to locate the nearest trucks. They are sorted by driving distance and type, and information on the motorist is sent to the proper truck.

This replaces a more labor-intensive system where dispatchers would call drivers or area towing companies to find any truck. Casey, the AAA driver, said the new system cuts down on mileage, saving vehicle wear as well as time.

All 100 AAA tow trucks in the Mid-Atlantic from New Jersey to Virginia are equipped with the devices to transmit their locations and receive information. The association is also outfitting many of the 2,000 independent contractors with the devices at a cost of up to $2,000 each.