There is nothing worse than breaking down and getting stuck on the side of the road.
While not every situation is a nightmare, any breakdown is a pain. Whether you’ve run out of gas, got a flat tire or some mysterious mechanical knocking just knocked for the last time, there’s never a good time to be stuck with an immobile vehicle. Throw in some nasty weather and there is no doubt it will ruin your whole day.
However, these days it’s not quite as bad as it used to be. Help is usually just a cell phone call -- or the push of a button -- away.
Roadside assistance, available from just about every manufacturer now, often accompanies a new car warranty in the U.S. But, like everything else associated with a new-car warranty, you really need to read the fine print. While some agreements include trip interruption reimbursement of up to $1,000, a couple of gallons of gas when you run out or even locksmith service, others simply provide tow service and only when your issue turns out to be a “warrantable mechanical condition.”
In other words, by running over that ladder and puncturing a pair of tires, you’re likely on your own. If you’re not sure what is covered with your plan, it’s most likely laid out in your warranty booklet or another supplemental pamphlet included with your owner’s manual.
GM added roadside assistance in recent years to its comprehensive warranty it calls “The Best Coverage in America.” Buyers of GM cars get roadside assistance coverage for five years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. GM spokeswoman Pamela Flores says, “Our customers really appreciate it, the service, the convenience of having roadside assistance available 24-7-365.”
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Coverage varies by manufacturer, but in most cases the coverage matches the new-car warranty. In some cases, mileage is unlimited, but the time is fixed. The level of service you get varies as well. They won’t always send a tow truck or flatbed carrier, especially if they can solve the problem without a tow. But if they do send a tow truck, it will come from a local service company who is part of a network that currently holds the contract with the automaker.
Porsche, for instance, will dispatch a “Roadside Response Team” from a dealership if you are close enough. While not capable of towing a vehicle, the response team can bring fuel, provide assistance with lockouts, jump start your car and even mount a spare tire, including bringing a loaner wheel and tire if your Porsche is not equipped with a spare.
In other cases, call center or dealership techs may be able to talk a confused consumer through some basic troubleshooting techniques to send them on their way. With the advanced telematics systems many cars have today, like OnStar, lockouts can be remotely resolved with a simple phone call. And systems like OnStar, BMW Assist and Toyota’s Safety Connect, amongst others, can sometimes do a remote scan of the car’s various sensors to potentially pinpoint any problem areas that can either be addressed remotely or can be used to give a heads up to the technician on his way to assist.
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Roadside assistance does have its limits. In cases where a crime or major accident has taken place and rendered the vehicle disabled, you will likely need to hire a tow truck directly or via your insurance carrier. If the vehicle is somewhere off-road, you can pretty much forget about getting a tow in that situation as well. Weather-related incidents are a gray area. Some plans cover extraction from, say, snow banks or ditches, while others will not. And if they do end up towing your car, manufacturer-provided roadside assistance almost always calls for your car to be towed to the nearest dealership, not to your home or an independent mechanic.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to roadside assistance coverage. Honda only provides it if you purchase their Honda Care extended service package. But, at least their plan is fairly comprehensive, including trip and rental car reimbursement and “concierge” services that include emergency cash advance and airline ticket assistance, along with the shipping of your personal items home if your car can’t make it. Chrysler’s new-car warranty includes very limited roadside assistance that provides for towing when a warranty-related issue renders the car undrivable, but, like Honda, they will sell you a comprehensive service package that includes roadside assistance.
Beyond new-car coverage periods, some manufacturers will allow you to renew your coverage on an ongoing basis, which can be a nice option.
And then there is Mercedes-Benz. The famed Germany luxury maker offers roadside assistance for any Mercedes-Benz on the road, regardless of age or mileage. They only offer the towing and trip interruption reimbursement for new cars still under warranty, but for lockouts, minor mechanical assistance and changing tires, you’re covered if you’re driving a Benz, no matter how old it is, no matter the condition.
If you don’t have a new car, the odds are pretty strong that you have other options available to you. Many credit cards offer roadside assistance coverage as either a benefit to “gold” or higher cards, or as a fee-based option for standard cards. You can either pay annually or on an as-needed basis, depending on your card. Some cell phone companies also offer coverage for a few dollars a month. Many insurance companies also offer plans.
Even if you don’t have any coverage from your car company, credit card, cell phone, or insurance company, some states now manage small fleets of service vehicles on heavily transited highways to get people running and traffic flowing as quickly as possible. One example is the state-run Highway Emergency Local Patrol (HELP) trucks that cover New York roads. Beyond mounting spare tires and bringing a splash of gas, the HELP drivers are also trained in CPR. Roadside assistance, indeed!
Of course, there have long been third-party motor clubs that have offered roadside assistance since near the dawn of the automobile. The juggernaut in that business is AAA, the American Automobile Association, which reports 51,000,000 members in the U.S. and Canada (via the CAA). At times, various manufacturers have used AAA as their service provider when it comes to roadside assistance, but currently only Lexus use AAA. The biggest difference between AAA and your manufacturer-provided service is that while your car is covered from the automaker, you are covered personally by AAA.
AAA spokesperson Christie Hyde told AOL Autos, “You’re not registering your vehicle with us. We don’t ask you anything about your vehicle when you join. We’re registering you as a member. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a passenger or a driver, the membership follows you and the benefits follow you around. So, if you’re with a friend and their car breaks down and they don’t have AAA, you can call on their behalf because you’re with them. It’s your benefits and not your car’s benefits.”
AAA also offers an extensive discount program for members, even beyond travel perks, that can easily pay for a member’s annual fees.
With the emergence of telematics -- integrated in-car communications, information and navigation systems -- help is often available just by pushing a button, such as the wrench icon in Mercedes-Benz vehicles equipped with the Mbrace system or the blue button of OnStar, which is ubiquitous on GM vehicles. These systems not only immediately connect you to a call center that can dispatch service, they also will automatically send your precise location (available from the on-board GPS) and the latest status of your vehicle’s major systems that can be monitored electronically.
The technology parade does not stop there, because, yeah, there’s an app for that, too. AAA have a free iPhone app (with an Android version coming soon) that uses your smartphone’s GPS capability to tell a dispatcher exactly where you are stuck, even if you don’t know. BMW and Mini offer a similar free app for a variety of smartphones that will send your VIN and the car’s description to the service center when reporting the need for assistance.
While getting a flat or having your car go kaput still stinks, if you’ve got a newer car and a cell phone, you likely won’t be stuck long. And even if you have an older car, there are many options for roadside assistance that cost just a few bucks a month and give you the peace of mind that even if you do end up on the side of the road, it doesn’t have to ruin your whole day.