Memphis-based startup improves breakdown detection in MATA buses

You’ve probably seen them on the side of the road before. Hulking, broken down Memphis Area Transit Authority buses shunted to the side of the road and waiting for a haul to the garage.

With a boost from local startup incubator Start Co., Preteckt is developing a high-tech solution to help keep Memphis’ fleet of buses on the road and meeting schedules with proprietary automotive technology.

After a six-month proof of concept trial that started in 2017 with 20 municipal buses, MATA is poised to add Preteckt’s diagnostic hardware to all of its buses to feed real-time data on a vehicle’s condition — and keep them on the road and out of the shop. MATA will install the technology on 20 units per month until the entire fleet, about 180 buses, is equipped, with an initial contract period of two years.

“It reduces the apprehension the public has about using public transportation. It makes all around good sense to work on the vehicles when they are already in the garage rather than having to chase them out in the field,” said MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld.

“It was evident it could give us information to help improve the quality of our service. If we can avoid a breakdown in the field, that makes our on-time performance go up.”

The technology started catching problems with MATA buses immediately.

“We prevented three or four breakdowns in the first couple of weeks of the test project where the condition of the vehicle’s electrical system was being monitored, and it could predict that we would have road failure in the coming days and were able to avoid it,” said Rosenfeld.

With revenue declines over the years, MATA diverted funding to operations rather than purchasing new vehicles.

Fifty-one vehicles in the MATAPlus active fleet have exceeded their useful service life, and MATA anticipates receiving 35 replacement vehicles in the spring of 2019. Two of the fixed-route buses in the active fleet have met their useful service life, and they are currently being replaced by rebuilt vehicles -- and a few more additional vehicles are expected soon to be retired, Rosenfeld said. 

An aging fleet comes with increased breakdowns and costs to keep it running. With a successful trial of Preteckt’s technology, it was deemed an inexpensive investment to see what was going on under the hood.

“Where we have the opportunity to utilize technology to lower our overall cost of providing service, we will run into that arena pretty quickly,” said Rosenfeld. “We will see reduced costs, we will see reduced downtime and we will see an improvement in the customer experience.”

Most modern vehicles are interconnected through sensors that communicate with one another. However, sensors generally aren’t put to use until the vehicle is in the shop. Like a black box on an airplane, they are generally used tell you what went wrong, not prevent the crash from occurring.

“The data they are collecting is the same information an auto dealer uses to service your car, for example. We are transmitting the data in real time rather than waiting for the monthly cycle or the preventative maintenance cycle to hook a computer up to it,” said Rosenfeld.

Preteckt's founding team of Sasha Kucharczyk, Rory Woods, and Ken Sills (left to right).In addition to the hardware, which is physically placed on a vehicle’s engine, the company also developed the backend architecture, the software that collects all that data and then analyzes it at high speed .

“We’ve developed a technique for taking input automotive data ... and making sense of it in such a way that we can predict vehicles breaking down before it happens with weeks to months of advance notice,” said Ken Sills, Preteckt co-founder, who added that the program cycles through 2 to 3 gigabytes per month of data for each vehicle.

The idea came about three years ago.

“I had been working as a professor for almost a decade and decided I wanted to do something more on the industrial side something that was more real,” said Sills.

The educator wanted to exercise his engineering skills and began tinkering with hardware. Installed in a car, the hardware would take data generated by thousands of vehicle sensors and feed real time information to software to be analyzed.

After an prototype was ready,  Sills, who was living in Toronto, unveiled it to family and friends. What was supposed to be a fun weekend project started having predictive success among the small test group.

Encouraged, Sills and his partners presented the concept at Google Next Toronto in 2015, where the fledgling business was connected with Start Co. in Memphis.

“Start Co. reached out to us and convinced us that if we were to come down here [to Memphis] two good things would happen: they would teach us how to run a business and introduce us to a different kind of customer which they thought would be valuable trucking fleets. For me, I came full circle at that point,” said Sills.

In Memphis, Sills found his first customer for Preteckt — trucking company Empire Express.

The son of a fleet mechanic, Sills paid for college by working in the same garages as his father. The idea of working with big rigs appealed to the educator-turned-entrepreneur.

After participating in the 2015 Summer of Acceleration, Sills spent the next two years working with various small to mid-sized trucking fleets in Memphis to adapt the technology to larger vehicles, which speak a different language than personal cars.

Success has come quickly for the Preteck.  More clients have been added recently with a move into the manufacturing sector as the start up has secured contracts with Daimler subsidiary Thomas Built Buses and Bridgestone in Nashville, Tenn.

Preteckt, headquartered at 88 Union Avenue, currently has eight employees with plans to hire a senior data engineer. They are preparing to raise a seed round later in the year that will allow them to expand with global F500 companies that have expressed interest in Preteckt’s technology. Due to their work with MATA, they are in discussions with another municipal fleet.

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