Vehicle Order Tracking: Project ETA Responds to the New Retail Reality

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The business of selling cars is undergoing a fundamental transformation right before our eyes. The creation of Project ETA, in just three months, is among the many ways Toyota is responding to help Toyota and Lexus dealers and their customers cope with the change.
 
COVID-19 lockdowns. Semiconductor shortages. Supply chain disruptions. The war in the Ukraine. The rising cost of raw materials. All of the above and more have created an automotive marketplace unlike any the industry has seen before.
 
The full impact can be seen on the retail front lines, where Toyota and Lexus dealers don’t have nearly enough vehicles in stock to keep pace with customer demand. That’s forced all concerned to embrace a new way of doing business, where customers place orders for vehicles that have yet to be built. And then, in turn, dealers must find ways to keep those customers posted on the progress of their orders.
 

BY LAND AND BY SEA
Here’s a glimpse of just one facet of this new system, following a vehicle’s journey by cargo ship and rail.

To help everyone cope, key Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) teams collaborated on the development of Project ETA — a new cloud-based system that helps all of the affected parties track the progress of vehicle orders at a level of detail and timeliness not previously possible.
 
Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with two of the people behind this initiative — Smail Haddad, group manager of Supply Chain Modernization, and Audrey Mito, group manager of Distribution Management and System Transformation — to learn how it came to be and how it’s already begun to make a difference.
 
When did you start working on Project ETA?
 
Mito: We began talking about the need for this last August. We piloted an early version of the system in November and rolled it out to all of the Toyota regions and Lexus areas in March. The final pieces of the puzzle — the Southeast Toyota and Gulf States Toyota private distributors — will fall into place later this year once we have the data on their internally managed logistics processes.
 
Wow! That seems like a very quick turnaround.
 
Haddad: It was, but it needed to be. Project ETA was developed internally by our ITx group. They formed a tiger team of experts that was able to get us to pilot in just three months. It was wonderful to witness the synergy of everyone working together to deliver this critical tool.
 
What was the core challenge that Project ETA was looking to address? And what role, if any, did COVID and the supply chain issues play in this?
 
Mito: In many ways, COVID accelerated the need for this system. More and more customers are placing orders for vehicles that are not yet at dealerships. They want and expect detailed information at every step in the delivery process. That requires greater transparency. Before Project ETA, we really didn’t have a systematic way to make good on that promise.
 
Haddad: Our first step was to conduct interviews with several Toyota and Lexus dealers to ensure we fully understood their needs. In keeping with the way this company has always operated, we listened to our customers — our dealers — and gained insight into how they interact with their customers. Everything we did from that point forward was guided by that input.
 
How does Project ETA work?
 
Mito: At the granular level, the system allows dealers to follow the movement of vehicles via their VINs, or Vehicle Identification Numbers. There are three major components. The first and most important is the Visual Pipeline Tracker. This is an intuitive tool that follows, in near real-time, each vehicle’s journey from the placement of the order to its delivery to a customer.
 
Haddad: A second core component is greatly improved ETA accuracy. Before, we could provide a range of when a dealer could expect to receive an ordered vehicle. Now, they can see an actual delivery date.
 
Mito: The third core component are delay notifications. We’re dealing with a highly fluid manufacturing and logistics environment, so as you can imagine, the delivery process is subject to change. With Project ETA, we can be more proactive and timelier in our notifications to dealers if a delay is anticipated. And then they, in turn, can pass along that information to their customers.
 
Haddad: It’s all about keeping everyone in the loop and being as transparent with everyone as possible.
 
What role, if any, did TMNA’s transport and logistics business partners play in developing this system?
 
Mito: They were active participants in the creation of Project ETA. Our logistics network is extremely complicated. So close communication and timely updates from our partners are critical to providing the level of accuracy and detail that’s now needed and expected. We could not have done this without them.
 
It’s still early. But what’s been the impact of Project ETA so far?
 
Mito: Overwhelmingly positive. The dealers tell us the system is very intuitive and easy to use. And they say it delivers the information they need to communicate with customers to better manage their expectations. In fact, some of them have said that they sometimes print out the Visual Pipeline Tracker and hand it to their customers.
 
Haddad: Without a doubt, it is helping our dealers build positive relationships with their customers amid what is clearly a very stressful and challenging time in our business. As I see it, Project ETA is about trying to turn a negative into a positive.
 
Mito: Meanwhile, we believe Project ETA will help lighten the load on team members who are charged with responding to dealer queries about the status of vehicle orders. That’s a big win, too, especially when you realize that the vehicle shortage isn’t going away anytime soon.
 
Where does Project ETA go from here? Do you see opportunities to add other features to the base platform?
 
Mito: Yes, this is very much a work in progress. We can’t say for certain at the moment what will come next. But we have begun using artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop “smart” ETA windows that present even more detailed information on each vehicle’s logistics routing. And we are collaborating with the dealers on a customer-facing version that could be easily shared with people who are awaiting the delivery of their vehicles.
 
Haddad: However this continues to evolve, rest assured it will adopt a human-centered design approach so that the tool is intuitive, simple and of value to our dealers and their customers. Amid the uncertainty, communication is king.
 

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