DETROIT-Roadside assistance programs have been a staple of some tire companies' customer service add-ons for a long time. But a number of auto makers, General Motors Corp. in particular, also are offering expanded coverage in the event of an on-road breakdown.
The next time, for instance, that a serpentine belt breaks on a late-model Cadillac, leaving its owner stranded on a Palm Beach, Fla., highway, chances are Henry Rusielewicz will be first on the scene.
``I'm like a doctor, but I fix cars,'' Mr. Rusielewicz said. ``I'm on call 24 hours a day. If I can't fix it, I'll tow it in, help them get a rental car, even take them home.''
Mr. Rusielewicz is part of a 1,200-technician network Cadillac uses to service roadside assistance customers. These traveling techs handle 78,000 cases a year. Cases may be as simple as a locked vehicle. In some instances, the repairs are more complicated and require the vehicles to be towed to dealerships.
Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. run the largest technician-staffed roadside assistance programs in the nation. Cadillac has been offering it since 1987, Mercedes since 1979. Neither company would say what it costs the companies or dealers to run the programs.
Some technicians hold part-time jobs at dealerships. Others, such as Mr. Rusielewicz, are paid by Cadillac.
``This is a secure feeling to owners that they have confidence they will be cared for, whatever the situation on the road,'' said Pat Kemp, brand manager for the Cadillac DeVille. He credits the roadside program with helping maintain market share in a fiercely competitive luxury arena.
At Mercedes, the automaker offers limited service for such things as battery service for the life of the vehicle, regardless of owner, said Mercedes spokesman Jim Resnick.
An owner with an older, out-of-warranty Mercedes vehicle could request a technician to jump start the vehicle, fix a flat or bring gasoline, but towing and repair charges would be borne by the owner. Towing is free to Cadillac owners under warranty.
Mercedes wouldn't say how many traveling technicians it has, though it did say they are assigned to all 330 of the company's dealerships.
Many of the technicians at the franchised dealers of both companies work around the clock, with pagers and cell phones guiding them to customers. Mr. Rusielewicz's territory, for example, stretches from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys.
The network is established by the manufacturers based on the number of calls to that locale.
Mr. Rusielewicz is among the top two Cadillac technicians in terms of responses to road service cases, handling as many as 1,800 calls a year.
He is dispatched from a call center in Detroit, and may handle cases for up to six surrounding dealerships. When he needs parts or has a vehicle to be towed, Mr. Rusielewicz works through University Cadillac in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
His Chevrolet Suburban is loaded with serpentine belts, batteries, coolant, hoses, starter motors, jumper cables and plenty of tools.
Need a jump?
``The heat can play havoc on hoses, serpentine belts and starter motors,'' he said. ``In the rainy season, I'm fixing window actuators that stick. But my biggest request is to jump start a vehicle that has been sitting unused while the owners are up north.''
Says Tom Wdowic, manager for General Motors/EDS roadside assistance: ``We're continuing to look at how we can improve our roadside assistance. Our Cadillac customers will see responsive technology employed to get service to them quicker. We also plan to equip all the technicians with cell phones so they can help customers with questions and advice.''