Ed LeClair loves gadgets. So he bit when the finance manager at Honda of El Cerrito (CA) told him the dealership could equip his new Honda Accord with a small gadget that would email him service reminders and troubleshooting notifications.

“It's amusing and affordable and I love gadgets — so why not?” says LeClair.

The CAReader device he bought also allows him to know where his car is at any moment.

“I travel a lot,” he says. “I thought, ‘What fun for my friends it would be to keep track of me.’”

Actually, it ended up helping him retrieve his car when it was stolen. He checked on the Internet and saw where it was. He relayed the location to the police, and he had the Accord back in 90 minutes.

Networkcar Inc. developed CARreader for dealerships. Last November, Reynolds & Reynolds Inc. acquired the small California telematics firm and introduced the product at the National Automobile Dealers convention in February.

Reynolds is rolling it out in California, Ohio and the Sunbelt states first. A national rollout is planned for 2004.

CAReader is about the size of a cell phone and can be plugged into the vehicle's computer system under the dashboard of most vehicles, 1996 and newer. It's SAE and FCC certified so there are no warranty issues.

The engine information is sent over a cellular network to the Networkcar center, which then analyzes the data for potential problems. The vehicle owner can log onto a personal Web page that includes the diagnostic trouble codes if any problems exist, service reminders, mileage, vehicle location and operating conditions.

The diagnostic information also goes to the dealership's service department so it can notify the customer by phone or email and schedule an appointment. The Web page can be branded by the dealership that sold CAReader to the customer. Reynolds says CAReader will help “tether” the customer to the dealership for ongoing business.

In California vehicles must undergo emissions testing twice a year. But CAReader vehicles do not have to be taken to a testing facility because the device monitors emissions constantly. If there's a problem, the customer gets an email.

Early results are promising, according to Reynolds. In general, about 23% of dealership new-car customers return for service repairs and maintenance beyond warranty work Fifty percent of customers with CAReader are returning.

Networkcar President Dave Dutch says the telematics venture dovetails with Reynolds' strategy of helping dealers with customer relationship management.

He says, “Even though Reynolds & Reynolds traditionally has been a company known for its back-office technology, it has become a company that drives customer retention.

“Since (Reynolds CEO) Buzz Waterhouse came on board four years ago, he has focused on developing front-end applications that help dealers manage that customer relationship.”

CAReader offers dealers a double benefit. It generates F&I revenue at the point of sale. It acts as a customer retention tool afterwards.

The MSRP is $995. Some dealers are charging as much as $1,500. The cost can be included in the vehicle's financing — a benefit LeClair finds attractive. There's a $9 monthly subscription fee that starts in the second year. The first year is free.

Vehicle telematics arrived on the scene a few years ago with high hopes and promises. Retrospectively, the predictions were too far-reaching as to vehicle applications. There've been some dramatic failures, says Dutch.

He calls Networkcar simple, affordable “telematics for the masses.”