Title:
SYSTEM FOR MANAGING A FLEET OF AUTOMOTIVE VEHICLES
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A system for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles having a program control circuit. A radio receiver receives radio signals from a remote station and that receiver has an output connected as an input signal to the digital circuit. A key fob having a mechanical button transmits the radio signal to unlock the vehicle associated with the fob. An electromechanical actuator is connected to an output from the control circuit and, upon activation, actuates the fob button to unlock the vehicle. This allows the central station to selectively unlock vehicles at remote locations.



Inventors:
Ramseyer, Robert (Farmington, MI, US)
Application Number:
12/435670
Publication Date:
08/27/2009
Filing Date:
05/05/2009
Assignee:
B & G Technologies, Inc. (Sterling Heights, MI, US)
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
340/5.61, 340/10.1, 701/31.4
International Classes:
G08G1/123; G01M17/00; H04B1/38; H04Q5/22
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
FAN, HONGMIN
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
HONIGMAN LLP (Kalamazoo, MI, US)
Claims:
I claim:

1. A system for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles comprising: a programmed control circuit, a radio receiver which receives radio signals, said receiver having an output connected as an input signal to said control circuit, a key fob having a mechanical button whiich, upon actuation, transmits a radio signal to unlock the vehicle associated with said fob, an electromechanical actuator connected to an output from said control circuit which, upon activation, actuates said fob button, said control circuit programmed to generate an output signal to activate said electromechanical actuator upon receipt of a preset radio signal by said receiver.

2. The invention as defined in claim 1 wherein each vehicle has a diagnostic port which provides access to data regarding a plurality of vehicle parameters, wherein said control circuit is electrically connected to the diagnostic port on its associated vehicle, said control circuit programmed to read the vehicle parameters from the diagnostic port, said control circuit comprising a radio transmitter which transmits said vehicle parameters to said remote station.

3. The invention as defined in claim 2 comprising a GPS receiver having its location output signal connected as an input signal to said control circuit, said control circuit programmed to transmit said location output signal by said radio transmitter.

4. The invention as defined in claim 2 wherein said control circuit comprises an RFID receiver which provides an output signal to said control circuit indicative of the absence or presence of a preset RFID tag, said control circuit selectively activates said radio transmitter to transmit a signal to the remote station.

5. The invention as defined in claim 1 wherein said control circuit comprises a processor.

6. The system as defined in claim 1 wherein said control circuit generates an enabling signal upon receipt of said preset radio signal to allow normal operation of the vehicle.

7. A system for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles comprising a programmed control circuit, a radio receiver which receives radio signals, said receiver having an output connected as input signal to said control circuit, wherein each vehicle has a diagnostic port which provides access to data regarding a plurality of vehicle parameters, wherein said control circuit is electrically connected to the diagnostic port on its associated vehicle said control circuit programmed to read the vehicle parameters from the diagnostic port, said control circuit comprising a radio transmitter which transmits said vehicle parameters, a sensor which provides an output signal to said control circuit indicative of the absence or presence of vehicle keys in the vehicle, said control circuit selectively activating said radio transmitter to transmit a signal.

8. The system as defined in claim 7 wherein said sensor is an RFID receiver.

Description:

CROSS REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This application is a continuation-in-part of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 12/015,114 filed Jan. 16, 2008, which is a continuation-in-part of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/776,077 filed Jul. 11, 2007, which is a continuation-in-part of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 11/077,437 filed Mar. 10, 2005, which is a continuation-in-part of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/980,259 filed Nov. 3, 2004, which claims priority of U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 60/516,931 filed Nov. 3, 2003.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

I. Field of the Invention

The present invention relates to a system for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles.

II. Description of Related Art

Modern day automotive vehicles include a diagnostic port, also known as an OBDII port. Various parameters regarding the vehicle are accessible from the diagnostic port. These parameters include odometer reading, fuel level, etc.

Currently, most vehicles cannot be unlocked by utilizing the diagnostic port. Consequently, to date, it has not been possible for a central station to remotely unlock vehicles at remote locations which may be miles away from the central station.

Modern vehicles also include a key fob having a mechanical button which, upon actuation, unlocks the vehicle. These key fobs, however, have only a very limited range, typically about 30 or 40 feet. Consequently, a central station cannot use the fobs to selectively unlock vehicles at more distant locations from the central station.

In many situations, however, such as vehicle rental fleets, it is desirable to not only read the vehicle parameters at a central station, but also to selectively unlock the vehicles from the central station. For example, a central station may automatically read the vehicle parameters once a vehicle enters a rental return lot in order to compute the rental charges.

In other situations, such as a vehicle share fleet, vehicles are parked after use in various locations. Thereafter, a user deciding to rent a vehicle contacts the base station which runs the fleet to determine the location of a nearby shared vehicle in the fleet. The base station determines the location of a nearby vehicle and conveys that information to the user.

Even though the base station may transmit the location of a nearby vehicle to the user, it is still necessary for the authorized user to obtain the keys necessary to operate the vehicle. Although the base station may read and provide certain data to the vehicle through the diagnostic port, at present most vehicles may not be unlocked through the diagnostic port.

Consequently, in these situations it has been necessary to provide or deliver the keys for the automotive vehicle to the authorized user or otherwise provide special access to the keys to the user.

SUMMARY OF THE PRESENT INVENTION

The present invention provides a system for managing a fleet of vehicles which overcomes the above-mentioned disadvantages of the previously known devices.

In brief, the system of the present invention comprises a control circuit which is mounted to the vehicle and electrically connected to the diagnostic or OBDII port in the automotive vehicle. This control circuit preferably includes a program processor.

A radio receiver receives radio signals from a remote base station. That receiver has an output connected as an input signal to the control circuit.

The system further includes a key fob which is associated with the automotive vehicle. The key fob includes a mechanical button which, upon activation, transmits a radio signal over a relatively short distance to unlock the vehicle associated with that fob. An electromechanical actuator is then connected to an output from the control circuit so that, upon activation of the electromechanical actuator by the control circuit, the electromechanical actuator activates the fob button to unlock the vehicle doors.

In operation, essentially all vehicles come with two key fobs, each of which operate in the same fashion, but may have a means, such as an RFID tag, to distinguish between the two fobs. After a vehicle has been used, one key fob is left within the vehicle, e.g. in the glove compartment, and the vehicle is then locked.

When a subsequent user desires to use a vehicle, the user contacts the base station to determine the location of a nearby vehicle. Any conventional means, such as text messaging over a cell phone, may be utilized to communicate between the user and the base station.

After the user has contacted the base station to indicate a desire to rent a nearby vehicle, the base station, after verifying that the user is in fact an authorized user, determines the location of a nearby automotive vehicle. This may be done, for example, by a GPS unit on the vehicle which, upon command, transmits the location of the vehicle to the base station. That location is then transmitted to the authorized end user.

After the authorized end user locates the vehicle, the authorized end user again contacts the base station that the vehicle has been located. The base station then transmits a radio signal to the radio receiver. The radio receiver, in turn, generates an output signal to the control circuit which then generates an output signal to activate the electromechanical actuator to activate the fob button and unlock the vehicle doors. The user may then locate the second key fob within the interior of the vehicle and operate the vehicle as desired. Alternatively, the vehicle may be unlocked through the diagnostic port.

After the authorized user is finished using the vehicle, the authorized user locks the second fob within the vehicle and then contacts the base station to indicate that the use of the vehicle has been completed. The base station periodically acquires the vehicle information that has been monitored from the diagnostic port in order to compute the appropriate charges for the transaction.

In addition, in the event that the user leaves the vehicle after the use has been completed and takes the key fob with him or her, an RFID reader generates an output signal to the control circuit. The control circuit then transmits a signal through its radio transmitter to the central station indicating that the key fob has been removed from the vehicle. The central station may then immediately contact the last authorized user, e.g. through text messaging, to have the last user return the key fob to the vehicle.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWING

A better understanding of the present invention will be had upon reference to the following detailed description when read in conjunction with the accompanying drawing, wherein like reference characters refer to like parts throughout the several views, and in which:

FIG. 1 is a diagrammatic view of a preferred embodiment of the invention; and

FIG. 2 is a block diagrammatic view of a preferred embodiment of the invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF A PREFERRED EMBODIMENT OF THE PRESENT INVENTION

With reference first to FIG. 1, a diagrammatic view of a system 10 for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles 12 is illustrated diagrammatically. The system 10 includes a central station 14 which communicates with the automotive vehicles 12 by radio through a radio antenna 16. The vehicles 12, furthermore, may be at a known location, e.g. a rental vehicle return lot, or may be at various locations remote from the central station 14.

With reference now to FIG. 2, a control circuit 20 is associated with each of the vehicles 12. The control circuit 20 includes a processor 22 such as a microprocessor, which electronically communicates with a diagnostic or OBDII port 24 on the vehicle through a vehicle communication interface 26. The processor 22, under control of a program contained in memory 28, accesses various parameters for the vehicle. These parameters include, for example, odometer reading, fuel tank level, etc.

The control circuit also includes a global positioning system (GPS) circuit 30 which provides an output signal to the processor 22 indicative of the current position of the control circuit 20. Such GPS systems 30 are conventional in construction so that a further description thereof is unnecessary.

The control circuit 20 communicates with the central station 14 (FIG. 1) through a radio transceiver 32 which may, for example, comprise a cellular telephone. The transceiver 32 provides input signals to the processor 22 under program control and, similarly, under program control transmits signals back to the base station 14.

Most automotive vehicles come with two separate key fobs 40. One key fob 40 is mounted to the control circuit 20 at a fixed location. This key fob 40 includes a mechanical button 42 which, upon depression, unlocks the vehicle doors. The key with the second key fob 41 is used by the driver to operate the vehicle.

An electromechanical actuator 44 is associated with the key fob 40 and has a movable member 46 which registers with the key fob button 42. Consequently, upon actuation of the electromechanical actuator 44, the member 46 extends and actuates the button 42 to unlock the vehicle.

The processor 22 controls the operation of the electromechanical actuator 44 through a control 48. Consequently, under program control by the processor 22, the processor 22 may selectively actuate the electromechanical fob button 42 to unlock the vehicle upon receipt of the appropriate command from the central station 14. Optionally the processor 22 may generate an enabling signal which enables normal operation of the vehicle. For example, the vehicle operation may be disrupted until receipt of the enabling signal.

Many fobs include an REID tag 50 so that the vehicle may detect the presence of the key fob 40 when the key fob 40 is relatively near the vehicle. The RFID tag 50, however, typically differs not only between different vehicles, but also between the two fobs associated with a single vehicle.

An active RFID sensor 52 detects the presence or absence of the second key fob 40 used by the driver to operate the automotive vehicle. The RFID sensor 52 provides a signal to the processor 22. Other types of sensors, however, may alternatively be used to detect the presence or absence of the key fob 40. For example, a key fob receptacle may be provided which detects the physical presence or absence of the key fob.

In practice the system of the present invention is particularly advantageous for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles in a rental car fleet. The rental car fleet may be maintained when not in use in a known rental fleet lot or, alternatively, the unused rental vehicles may be parked at various locations around the city waiting for the next subsequent user. In this case, the second key fob 41 with its key to operate the vehicle is locked inside of the vehicle 12.

An authorized user may then contact the central station to request the rental of a vehicle in any conventional fashion. For example, text messaging through a cellular telephone may be used to request the availability of a nearby automotive vehicle for rent.

Upon receipt of the request by the central station, the central station determines the location of a nearby rental vehicle by accessing the GPS data for that vehicle. Such GPS data is preferably obtained through the transceiver by the central station 14 at the termination of an authorized use of the vehicle by an authorized user. That location is then stored at the central station 14 in an appropriate computer record.

Alternatively, upon receipt of a request for an automotive vehicle from an authorized user, the central station 14 may query rental vehicles through the transceiver 32 and processor 22 of the current location of the vehicle through the GPS system 30. In either case, the location of a nearby vehicle is determined and that information is then conveyed to the authorized user in any conventional fashion, such as through text messaging.

Once the authorized user locates the vehicle, the authorized user again contacts the central station 14 to indicate that the vehicle has been found. At that time, the central station 14 transmits a radio signal to the transceiver 32. That radio signal is processed under program control by the processor 22 which then generates an activation command to the electromechanical actuator 44 through the control 48. Upon doing so, the electromechanical actuator 44 pushes or activates the fob button 42 to unlock the vehicle. The authorized user then finds the second or other key fob within the interior of the vehicle, e.g. in the glove compartment, and then utilizes the vehicle as desired.

At the conclusion of the rental period by the authorized user, the authorized user again locks the second key fob within the interior of the car and contacts the central station 14 to indicate that rental of the vehicle is no longer required. At that time, the central station 14 communicates through the transceiver 32 with the control circuit 20 to determine the various vehicle parameters, such as odometer, fuel level, etc., through the diagnostic port 24. Such parameters may then be utilized by the central station to prepare the appropriate rental charges for the vehicle.

In order for the system to operate smoothly, it is necessary that the authorized user lock the second fob 41 with the key in the interior of the vehicle following the rental use by that user. However, in some cases, the authorized user may forget to lock the key fob 41 with the key within the vehicle and, instead, inadvertently take the key fob 41 with him or her.

In that situation, the RFID sensor 52 at the conclusion of the rental period will detect the presence or absence of the second key fob 41 by reading or attempting to read the RFID tag 50 on the second key fob 41. In the event that the REID sensor 52 is unable to do so, an output signal is provided to the processor 22. The processor 22 then transmits a signal to the central station 14 through the transceiver 32 that the key fob has been removed from the vehicle at the end of the rental period. When this occurs, the central station 14 may immediately contact the last authorized user, e.g. by text messaging, to instruct that authorized user to return the key fob to the vehicle.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that the present invention provides a simple and yet highly effective system for managing a fleet of automotive vehicles which is particularly useful for a shared automotive vehicle fleet.

Having described my invention, however, many modifications thereto will become apparent to those skilled in the art to which it pertains without deviation from the spirit of the invention as defined by the scope of the appended claims.