By 2002, Marc L. Ingram had grown tired of hearing his dad complain about his long, cold walk through the parking lot after work at the General Electric (GE) facility in Louisville. Ingram, a high school freshman at the time, remembers his father often saying he wished he could start his car remotely "so that by the time I get there it'd be all warmed up." The 15-year-old decided to get out his toolkit.
Within a few months the Wireless Auto-Attendant was born. Ingram used his coding skills to program a small cellular receiver. He plugged the receiver into the diagnostic port underneath the dashboard of his dad's car. (It's the slot where mechanics connect equipment to the onboard computer.) The receiver relayed commands from a mobile phone to the car, so that by dialing a few numbers Ingram's dad could start the engine, lock or unlock the doors, and turn on the heat or air-conditioning from anywhere. During Ingram's senior year of high school in 2005, the device took fourth place in the engineering category of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Ingram, now 24 and two years out of college, has been tinkering with it ever since. In late 2009 he entered into a partnership with Samtec, a maker of electronics components in New Albany, Ind. The company agreed to fund a new venture, Mavizon Technologies, to produce and market the gadget, now known as AutoBot. Like the prototype, AutoBot connects any car built after 1995 to cellular networks and lets a user control all the same functions. It also checks oil levels and other diagnostics, can disable the car remotely if it's stolen, and can detect a crash and automatically send an emergency message to friends and family. The AutoBot functions can be controlled from a smartphone app or a Web browser.
Mavizon will start selling the lipstick-tube-size AutoBot for $299 in early summer. Users must also pay a monthly service fee that is yet to be determined, though Ingram hopes to offer an advertising-supported version without the recurring charge. Ingram will have plenty of competition: Companies such as Directed Electronics and DevToaster are working on similar products. All of them will compete with existing products such as General Motors' OnStar, which starts at $19 a month and comes standard on GM vehicles. The new entrants deliver "the same functionality by letting you install a piece of software on your phone," says Dominique Bonte, director of telematics and navigation for ABI Research.
Ingram says AutoBot will stand out from the crowd by innovating. Future products from Mavizon will stream music and news from the Web to a car's audio system, for example. "My vision has grown out of a lot of small ideas," he says.
His dad's cold walk through a parking lot to his car
Won fourth place at the Intel Science Fair
A $299 gadget that will compete with OnStar