If you haven't been new-car-shopping in a few years, you might not be aware of a valuable perk that nearly all automakers-even including aspiring Korean brands like Kia, Hyundai, and the late Daewoo-are now offering roadside assistance on nearly all vehicles. For a limited time or mileage from purchase, automakers are paying for towing, emergency services, jumpstarts, lockouts, and in some cases other breakdown incidentals out of pocket.
In the U.S., the first automaker-provided roadside assistance programs came in the 1980s (beginning with Mercedes-Benz in 1982), with several other luxury marques following some years later. For a long time the nation's leading established auto club, the American Automobile Association (AAA)-which first provided roadside service in 1915-chose not to stick with its own roadside services. But by the mid-1990s, when several more luxury brands began providing roadside assistance, AAA began providing roadside assistance dispatch services for several different automakers. The list of auto brands that now rely on AAA for roadside service are Audi, Buick, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Lexus, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Porsche, Saab, Saturn, and Volkswagen.
These complimentary roadside service programs usually last as long as the vehicle's limited warranty (typically, three to five years with mileage caps), but Mercedes-Benz remains an exception. The German automaker provides unlimited roadside assistance for all of its vehicles, no matter how old, including factory-trained technicians, jump starts, spare-tire installation, and emergency fuel; though towing costs may not be covered for off-warranty vehicles.
AAA out of the picture?
While AAA is now providing roadside assistance services for a vast group of nearly new vehicles, new-car roadside assistance calls make up less than ten percent of AAA's total roadside service calls, and many new-car owners also belong to the car club and request roadside service as regular members.
But why would consumers still opt for a roadside-rescue service like AAA when their new vehicle comes with roadside assistance?
The answer is in the strict routine that the towing service must follow for the manufacturer to reimburse them. While, in the event of any service call, manufacturer-supported roadside assistance generally requires a tow to the nearest dealership, that isn't always in the customer's best interest when the vehicle clearly needs something basic that's not covered under warranty, like new tires or a new battery.
For that reason, many customers, including those who already get AAA towing services through their manufacturer, still use their AAA membership roadside service so they can have their car towed wherever they want. "A lot of people don't want their vehicle towed to a dealership," said Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for AAA's national offices in Orlando, Fla. "We've found that many just want their vehicle towed home first." AAA will tow its members anywhere, within mileage limitations, with no questions asked.
For those with older vehicles, you should take a fresh look at what's offered. Greater competition has kept prices low and services generous. Many other companies are offering roadside assistance, often as an added perk. Cell-phone service providers and credit-card companies are offering roadside service plans for a modest additional fee, and even Wal-Mart has jumped into the fray, offering basic towing coverage for about $50 per year.
But with automakers and mass merchandisers now offering roadside assistance, leader AAA doesn't expect its business to decrease. The organization continues to grow at a steady rate, with over one million new members each year. "We've found that our members still appreciate AAA services on top of new-vehicle roadside assistance," added Sundstrom.
Other major players
AAA still offers a very competitive range of services and support, but two other major roadside service providers you might want to look into are Signature's Nationwide Auto Club ( www.nationwideautoclub.com) and DriverShield ( www.drivershieldautoclub.com). And for those who tend politically toward Ralph Nader, the Better World Club ( www.betterworldclub.com) is going head-to-head with AAA, offering comparable services while donating one percent of revenues to environmental causes and lambasting the AAA's pro-industry policies.
Generally, for an annual fee of well under $100, any of these auto clubs provide 24-hour assistance and towing virtually anywhere in the U.S., to any normally accessible public roads. If you stick with the basic service, there are also limits on the number of roadside assistance calls you can make per year. These services really redeem themselves in towing, as a single tow to the next exit of the Interstate can often be over $100. A side note for SUV owners: forest-service trails and other off-roading situations are usually not covered, so beware!
The assistance usually includes everything that the new-car assistance does: towing, jump starts or battery service, delivery of emergency gasoline or other fluids, spare-tire installation, lockout help and locksmith services, and accident or breakdown reimbursement. To varying degrees, these companies also offer members travel services, complimentary maps and guidebooks, and discounts for partner services.
The only way AAA plans to modify its services, in light of manufacturer-provided roadside assistance is by offering a more complete roadside solution, with useful additional services offered other than just towing. For instance, under a current program expansion, most local AAA services now offer a battery service diagnosis, where the attendant can check your vehicle's electrical system on the spot. The organization intends to stock and sell batteries-along with some other common components-at a competitive price at the roadside, getting stranded motorists back on the road much faster.
Local towing companies often belong to one or more nationwide dispatch networks setup by the auto clubs. These dispatch networks overlap quite a bit, though some auto clubs (like AAA) might use particular equipment or a truck displaying their logo. Either way, you contact a national call center (yes, a cell phone is quite useful here), which reroutes your request to a local tow operator or technician on call.
Some of the systems are a bit more sophisticated, though-especially for automakers who have in-vehicle emergency call systems. For instance, drivers of newer GM vehicles can call for roadside assistance from inside their vehicle, through the automaker's OnStar system. This call is answered by EDS, OnStar's Texas-based administrating company. Specific vehicle records are automatically accessed, and the system also records the exact GPS location of the vehicle, then the approved calls are routed to AAA for national dispatch.
Keep in mind that having roadside assistance gives no excuse not to have a roadside emergency kit. For times when you're in the boonies and out of cell phone range, or in a dangerous spot, having the basics is still important.
Roadside service plans are quickly becoming a must-have for drivers, ensuring them peace of mind and likely saving money in the long run. Check with your warranty information if you're covered for roadside assistance, and if not, sign up!