Corrections or additions?
Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 22, 2000. All rights reserved.
For Rivit, Calling All Cars
Gadget collectors and technophiles will not be surprised
but in less than two years, your car could be wired to the Web. Auto
manufacturers already agree on it — as of 2002, new cars will
be outfitted with something called an Intelligent Data Bus (IDB),
a standard networking port that will connect a car to a full range
of consumer electronics devices, such as navigation and anti-theft
systems, personal digital assistants, pagers, and of course, the Internet.
The IDB, in all likelihood, will be a small, plug-in under the dashboard
that acts like a portal to the car’s nervous system. Mechanics would
rely on it for diagnostic purposes. However, it could also perform
some neat tricks for car owners. Say your oil needs changing, for
example — you get an E-mail telling you it’s time to visit the
mechanic. If you have a navigation system, the IDB would enhance its
accuracy by noting information from the odometer and the differentials
in the wheels to get an accurate fix on the vehicle’s location.
The IDB may be lost on the average driver — just as VCR timers
are lost on the average home video watcher. But for companies with
hundreds of cars and trucks as a primary asset the IDB will be the
key to business in the 21st century — the automotive equivalent
of the Universal Bar Code.
Car rental agencies are already talking about how the IDB would streamline
their operations, cut down on vehicle wear and tear, and eliminate
the middleman. Currently rental companies track their vehicles manually,
but with the right wireless technology, each time a vehicle pulls
on or off the lot, the vital statistics of the car — identification,
fuel level, mileage — could be gathered and sent directly to a
Anticipating the IDB revolution, National Car Rental, one of the three
largest car rental companies, approached Sarnoff Corporation about
developing the technology to fulfill this vision. Could Sarnoff develop
a simple wireless communications device that plugs into cars, reads
information, and sends it back to the Web?, they asked.
The answer: Rivit, a Sarnoff spin-off that is developing a device
that plugs into cars and does just that. The four-person firm recently
completed and demonstrated a prototype that plugs into GM vehicles
made after 1996 (which have something similar to an IDB port located
under the steering column) and uses radio frequency identification
technology (RFID) to send messages back to a remote device. The end
goal is to develop a standard wireless tracking device that plugs
into the IDB, but in the meantime, Rivit is also developing a device
that can be hardwired into cars that pre-date that IDB — the majority
of the cars on the road.
Heading up the company is Cosmo Iacavazzi, an entrepreneur and member
of Princeton’s Class of 1965 and an All-American football player.
Like his even more famous classmate, Bill Bradley, Iacavazzi was more
than just a jock. Even as he pursued a brief professional football
career immediately after graduation, he was also earning a master’s
in aeronautical engineering from Princeton. But it was his entrepreneurial
spirit, rather than engineering expertise, that got him the Rivit
job, he says. "Sarnoff had a prototype," says Iacavazzi. "It
was a matter of solidifying the business relationships with potential
customers. My job is to start to bring in people and further to develop
the business plan."
Car rental agencies and any company with a fleet transportation
unit are Iacavazzi’s most obvious clients, but beyond its applications
as an asset management tool, Iacavazzi foresees Rivit’s technology
being used in various other ways — to solve traffic flow problems
on the highway, simplify the fleet fueling process, or even, if applied
to people, used as a data collection tool for marketing. "In the
end, we’ve got interesting technology," he says, "but it’s
really the application that counts."
Radio frequency identification technology of the sort behind Rivit
has already produced a broad range of products on the market —
shoplifting tags to trip alarms, identification cards that lift gates
and open doors. Rivit, therefore, is hardly alone in this market,
but its technology does have some unique attributes, says Jonathan
Schepps, technical group leader of Radio Frequency Data Systems at
Sarnoff, the department from which Rivit was spun-off. "There
are lots of RFID devices on the market," he says, "but what
makes Rivit unique is that it’s probably the lowest cost solution
for a tag that can acquire external data from a vehicle and transmit
that relatively long distances."
Long distance, in this case, means a range of roughly 100 feet. EZ
pass and shoplifting tags, by comparison, have a range of only a few
feet. Rivit currently holds three patents on its device, which includes
a transponder, or tag, that plugs into the vehicle (or is hard-wired
in older cars), and a receiver, located outside the vehicle. In the
case of the car rental industry, the receiver would be located on
the lot, well within the 100 feet parameter.
"Our approach to the design of the tags is to keep it as simple
as possible," says Iacavazzi. "It’s relatively low cost and
it can literally plug into the vehicle and read mileage, fuel, as
well as location and identification — we’re the only tag manufacturer
that can do that. The tag plus installation could be installed for
roughly $50. Our goal is to get it to about half that price."
The second of five children of a trucking company owner, Iacavazzi
grew up in football country, Scranton, Pennsylvania, the only one
of his siblings to attend an Ivy League college. At Princeton Iacavazzi
captained the last undefeated football team and was an All American
fullback and linebacker. He went on to play one year with the New
York Jets, but then went into "financial engineering" with
Iacavazzi spent 12 years as an investment banker, including a stint
with William Sword in Princeton. Then cable television launched Iacavazzi’s
entrepreneurial career in the late 1970s and early `80s. He competed
for and won a franchise of a cable television company, Com Video Systems,
which went on to win an award from the New Jersey Cable TV Association
for technical excellence — it used fiber optics and was one of
the first systems to offer 50 channels. "I tend to try to look
ahead to see what’s happening technically," he says.
In the 1980s, Iacavazzi sold the cable business to form a real estate
development company, Marjen Management, which built such projects
as the Seasons (a housing development in Hillsborough), Your Doctors
Care (a medical facility), the Courtyard (seven office buildings in
Hillsborough), and Bedminster Medical Plaza. The real estate recession
caught up with him, however, and he went through a bankruptcy in 1992.
About that time he joined REEP, founded by his former Princeton football
teammate Lynn Sutcliffe in 1981, a service contractor to eight utility
companies that installed insulation to reduce energy use and also
tested the air for radon and the water for pollutants. When Iacavazzi
came on board, Sutcliffe moved over to focus on the South Plainfield-based
firm, Sycom. Iacavazzi planned to expand Energy Retrofit Systems,
first regionally, then nationally. "Once I left the finance world,
my career has pretty much been company building, seeing an idea and
a technology, focusing more on the application of it rather than the
technology," says Iacavazzi, who now lives in Princeton with his
wife, a nurse at the Princeton Medical Center. They have four grown
Earlier last year Iacavazzi joined Sarnoff as a consultant. "I
know the quality of the Sarnoff technology — that’s really exciting,"
he says. "The real trick is to bridge the gap between the potential
and the actual. Can we really create value?"
The practicality of Rivit’s technology hinges on its compatibility
with various vehicle makes and models, and until the Intelligent Data
Bus becomes the universal standard in all cars, the onus is on companies
like Rivit to close the gap between incompatible technologies. For
example, GM cars created after 1996 all have a plug-in port that Iacavazzi
calls a "Model T of the Intelligent Data Bus," but the computer
language operative in each model varies. "The engineers each came
up with their own standards, their own flavor," says Iacavazzi.
The first challenge for Rivit is to develop a single plug-in device
that speaks all of those languages. The second challenge is to create
an "analog" tag that can be used by the majority of vehicles
that have no digital plug-and-play port at all. This would involve
hardwiring a device directly into the electronic system of a car.
"We’d wire into the mileage for example, get an impulse, and read
the mileage," says Iacavazzi. With the "analog" tag, car
rental agencies could retrofit older vehicles with the same kind of
device that the IDB accommodates more readily.
Finally, Rivit is working to develop a tag that will be compatible
with the IDB device that will be in cars manufactured in 2002. To
that end, Iacavazzi has been working closely with the IDB Forum (www.idbforum.org,
724-942-3636), the Pittsburgh-based organization of 63 companies creating
a standard for the IDB by 2002.
Once the Intelligent Data Bus becomes a fixture in most vehicles,
it paves the way for new applications of Rivit’s technology, not just
on the car lot, but also on the highway. "We’re not going to double
the amount of highways, but we’re going to double the amount of traffic,
so we need to move cars better," says Iacavazzi, who predicts
that RFID technology will be used to alert drivers to bottlenecks,
prevent tailgating, and change signals when necessary. Rivit just
received a $250,000 grant from the New Jersey Commission on Science
and Technology to continue developing the technology for transportation
Iacavazzi sees Rivit’s technology expediting the fleet fueling process.
"Now a driver pulls up to the company pump, inputs some information
such as car ID, and then the pump authenticates that information and
releases gas," he says. "With our tag, the moment the vehicle
drives up to the pump that information is transmitted."
Since Rivit’s technology works so well at tracking cars, theoretically,
is should be able to track other things just as well. People, for
example. "We could very simply put a battery in it, and you could
attach it to your person and it would be like a pager," says Iacavazzi.
"We’ve had preliminary talks with Disney and Carnival Cruises.
For customer service reasons, they want to know where their employees
are. From a marketing point of view, if Disney sees that you’re always
stopping at this certain group of stores, they’d like to know that."
It’s still some time before people-tracking gets serious, though.
"You’re talking about getting the tags down to $1," says Iacavazzi,
"but that’s three or four generations from now." Football
fans might think of it as second down and short, with the handoff
to Iacavazzi up the middle.
by Melinda Sherwood
Princeton 08540. Cosmo Iacavazzi, president and CEO. 609-734-3207;
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