Invented by Dennis McGinn, Suman Cherukuri, SentriLock LLC

The market for Shielded electronic locking box is growing, as companies seek to keep their devices safe from electromagnetic interference (EMI). 5G networks are already being introduced to the world and new technologies like smart appliances, electric vehicles, and other products present new EMI challenges that require more stringent shielding.

Using a custom shield is often the best way to manage EMI, as it allows you to design a device that meets specific requirements for RF transmission. However, it?s important to consider a few factors when putting together an EMI shield component, including the type of metal used, the shape and dimensions, and the technical cleanliness of the part.

Shields must be flat and free of any stray particles or traces of oils. These contaminants can reduce the solderability of a custom shield and create potential short circuits. A precision stamper can provide advice on how to achieve these specifications and help you maintain the required technical cleanliness throughout the manufacturing process.

A good stamper can also recommend ways to optimize the design and layout of an EMI shield component so that it?s robust enough to meet the requirements for a specific application. This may mean adjusting the shield?s frame, making it taller or wider to increase its strength without losing too much of its SE. This can be a difficult task, as it requires balancing the characteristics of the metals and their conductivity and permeability.

The invention works by Dennis McGinn, Suman Cherukuri, SentriLock LLC

“Systems and methods for data collection and security for multiple vehicles are disclosed. Each vehicle has a vehicle activity module. The vehicle activity module includes a wireless transmitter, storage device, at most one sensor to receive event information from ID devices such as RFID cards and keypads, and a releasable container. It also has a processor that accesses and analyzes information. The VAMs can be connected wirelessly to a computer system. VAMs manage access to keys and monitor access information. They also store and transmit information related to intrusion, sales, and non-sales events. VAMs can operate autonomously without accessing the computer system to verify event information. To facilitate the use of “smart keys,” signal attenuating mechanisms are also included in VAMs.

Background for “Shielded electronic locking box”

“a. Field of the Invention

“The invention is generally directed to a system or apparatus for monitoring activity within a fleet vehicle fleet for security, inventory control and management analytics.”

“b. Background Art”

Car dealerships and other agencies dealing with large numbers of vehicles need a system to track and maintain security. They also need projections of public interest in different types of models. This information is essential for planning and ordering sales. It includes information about the sales of specific models as well as information on test drives taken and other information.

Dealerships also have problems with keys. It can be difficult for sales staff to find the keys to a vehicle in a central office when they are interested in driving it, or viewing its interior and accessories. The obvious benefits of keeping the keys to vehicles with you are that they can be easily accessed by sales staff whenever they need them. The keys can be stolen or vandalized, which is why they should not be kept with the vehicle.

“In response, there have been many attempts in the prior art for secure key boxes to be placed on vehicles. U.S. Pat. No. No. 5,563,579 Carter describes a key storage device that is attached to each vehicle’s window. It has a compartment to store access keys. A sensing device is also included in the storage device, which can be used to determine whether an event has been declared routine or hostile. An additional device can be permanently attached to the vehicle to transmit information about that vehicle. The two devices transmit the information via radio to a computer within the dealership. This records the event along with the time. The data is kept for future retrieval to generate reports for dealership management. An appropriate security alert signaling may also be used in the event of a hostile event.

“U.S. Pat. No. Wunderlich, No. 6,611,232 discloses a lockbox unit mounted on a car that includes a keybox for storing a vehicle’s key and a locator device. A central base station sends a polling signal to the locator unit. This signal includes an address that will allow it to locate the specific locator unit. Based on the time arrival data generated from the receiving antennas, the locator unit and vehicle are determined. An identification device may be included in the lock box unit. This records who accessed the keybox to retrieve the vehicle keys. These details are stored in a memory card.

“Despite all these advancements, there are still problems with vehicle security and frequent battery replacements. Systems such as Carter used a pulse generator to send out a call to their boxes to see if they had a request or a problem. The boxes would have to always be “listening” in this mode of operation. This would make it impossible to use battery-powered modules as they would drain the batteries and require frequent servicing. They could also be used to power the box using the car’s battery. However, this would make it difficult to locate the box in the driver’s window and remove it quickly without any wires.

“In addition, it was discovered that the earlier systems can be easily disabled with a few blows to their modules. However, due to the nature alarm reporting, damage may not be immediately noticed.”

“The other problem with the existing systems is their inability to locate specific automobiles quickly and reliably on the lots. This is why existing systems have failed to locate certain vehicles on the lots. Existing products don’t receive signals continuously (1 to 5 min) from vehicles to keep their position. Vehicles are frequently moved for cleaning, lot freshening and detail work. Buyers today often identify the vehicles they are interested in viewing online, which can create problems. It has been reported that the vehicle you are looking for is not always available. Systems that use multiple radio antennas or GPS to locate a vehicle’s location are too costly and need to be managed. This is in addition to the VAM access control system that must be used continuously by sales staff to sell and access vehicles.

“The increasing use of smart keys is further complicating the use earlier systems. Automobile industry. These smart keys are now offered by many automobile manufacturers. These keys allow you to operate various vehicle functions as long as they are within reach. These “smart keys” are used to control vehicle functions. These?smart keys’ can often cause problems with older systems.”

“There is a need to have a system that has proactive and effective security features, allows for accurate and reliable identification and location of cars, and permits the use of battery-powered devices that don’t require frequent servicing.”

“Accordingly it is an object the present invention to increase vehicle security in a vehicle fleet systems which includes the bright flashing red LED on all vehicles at regular intervals, and whenever the VAM module is disturbed if not temporarily suspended or by valid access events.”

“Another object is to allow automatic alerting by internet/email/cell phones of designated individuals when there is security breach.”

“Another object of the invention” is to provide an integrated, self-sustaining power system within each module that requires less maintenance than previous systems.

“Another object of the invention” is to provide VAMs that exist in light sleep mode and can respond in milliseconds to any interruption (disturbance/request to access).

“Another object of the invention is to provide a security mechanism in which each VAM requests attention when necessary. This includes waking up at set (and controllable intervals) such as every 30 mins during business hours or every 5 minutes at night. In this way, an AWOL/MIA default will generate an alert.

“Another object of the present invention” is to provide a plurality VAMs that can operate independently for extended periods of times. Each VAM also has the ability to store event information such as access, employees, location and the like inside the VAM. This ensures that the security and operation of individual VAM units is not affected by any network downtime.

“A further object of this invention is to provide a system that allows information such as frequency VAM access and customer information to be directly entered into the VAM. These reports can then be used to generate reports which can be used to plan inventory, sales strategies and make management decisions.”

“Another object of the present invention” is to provide smart keys. The VAM can be used to manage traditional and basic remote entry keys.

“Another object of the invention is to enable users to access any VAM-equipped vehicle at any location. This can be anywhere that is remote from the dealer site. Every VAM is wirelessly updated every day so that authorized persons can access the VAM from any place and at any time. Once the vehicle has been returned to the dealer’s Wireless-equipped lot, accesses are automatically tracked and reported to the central system. This allows the VAM’s to be used wherever it is allowed by dealer policy.

“Another object of the invention is to wirelessly locate VAM-equipped vehicles while they are on the dealer’s lots for customer shows, real-time inventory track and vehicle security. For security and tracking purposes, VAM-equipped vehicles that are temporarily located far from the dealer’s lot will be prompted and must be signed out of manager. Any authorized person can find a vehicle by entering the stock number or any other description on any attached internet-connected PC, regardless of where it is located.

“Another object of the invention is to provide daily reports of all vehicles in being reconditioned and/or certified that are not yet available for purchase.”

“Another object of the invention is to offer additional security for each vehicle by installing a wireless vehicle ID device in each vehicle that continuously identifies it to each VAM. The device would be small and battery-powered, and continuously signal the vehicle’s identity to its VAM. The VAM would communicate with the radio wirelessly on the lot to identify the vehicle. The vehicle may be prevented from starting due to the wireless identification device. This could include using a starter relay, or disabling it altogether if VAM cannot be accessed properly by an authorized person.

“The advantage of the invention is that keys can be granted or denied in real-time.”

“Another benefit of the invention is that access can be locked out after hours, except for master cards.”

“And the other advantage of this invention is that all users can be identified and tracked.”

“An additional advantage of the invention is that the access keys are electronic (RFID), and encrypted to prevent copying.”

“An additional advantage is that each key set has an RFID tag attached to it for unique identity tracking with every access and return.”

“Another benefit is that the power source is always accessible and independent and provides regulated power to keep electronics operational.”

Rechargeable batteries offer a renewable energy source. They can also be reported on a regular basis for advance notice of battery failures. The dealer can easily change the battery pack.

“The system also provides wireless tampering alerts that can be triggered in real-time.”

“Another advantage is that the system immediately sends a vehicle-specific alert (by vehicle description and VIN) to a dealer-designated security surveillance center. This information can also be sent to cell phones immediately as an urgent message, or via e-mail.

“An additional advantage is that VAM devices which have not been checked in for a regular (5 minute) interval will still generate an immediate alarm to serve as failsafe.”

“Briefly, the preferred embodiment of this invention is a system to maintain security and gather data for multiple vehicles. Each vehicle has a vehicle activity module. The vehicle activity module includes at least one ID reader, activity sensors, and wireless transmitter. A central computer with a database for data storage is also included. The central computer can be in wireless communication to each vehicle’s activity modules. Key ID tags are attached to vehicle keys and personal ID cards are issued to service, sales and maintenance personnel. Personal ID cards and key tags attached to keys are used to read information. This information is sent to the central computer to authorize access, record access activity and store and analyze the data.

“VAMs and methods of collecting and analyzing vehicle access data and maintaining security for multiple vehicles are also disclosed.”

The present invention also provides a key management system for storing at most one key near a vehicle, maintaining security, gathering data, and keeping it safe. It includes a housing with a releasable compartment and a signal attenuating apparatus that can attenuate a wireless signal from the key. A conductive container that fits within the releasable compartment of the signal attenuator device can be used to attenuate a wireless signal emanating from the key by reducing its frequency. The conductive container could also be an integral part of the device in another embodiment.

“The key management device could also contain an identification tag, such as an RFID tag containing vehicle information, attached to the key and associated with the conductive container. The key management device could also include an information reader or sensor that allows event information to be entered into the device. A storage device can also be connected to the information reader to receive and store event information. Event information can include identification information such as employee name, user ID, access information (such a pin number), key data, customer information (such a telephone number), location, sales information and intrusion information. An information reader could include a magnetic reader, an RFID reader, keypad, biometric reader or combinations thereof.

The key management device could be connected to the computer by a wireless transmitter. This transmitter may be set up to communicate with the computer via a Zigbee wireless protocol or cellular communication facility. The information reader can be either integral or removable.

The key management device could also include an event mechanism such as a release mechanism to the releasable keys compartment, an intrusion alarm or an LED display. An event action mechanism can be activated upon verification of the reference information and the corresponding event information.

“The present invention also provides a system for maintaining security for multiple vehicles and collecting data. The system contains a number of VAMs. Each VAM can be assigned to one or more vehicles. A storage device, a wireless transmitter and at least 1 sensor are included in the VAMs. Additionally, there is a releasable container that can receive at least one key and a processor which can be coupled to at least one of the wireless transmitters, sensors, or releasable keys containers. The VAMs can be connected to a computer with a database that stores data. This computer is in wireless communication and the vehicle activity module. The system also includes at minimum one key identification device that can be attached to the at most one key of each of the plurality vehicles and at the least one identification card that contains information about an individual who has access to at least one VAM. A clock may be included in the system, which allows for information to be transmitted from the VAM to a computer.

“The processor can receive and transmit event information from at least one sensor to the storage device, or the computer. It is also programmed to access the event information, analyze it, and compare it with reference information stored within the VAM to initiate an event action within that VAM.”

“The computer periodically transmits information to the VAMs, independent of event information. The reference information can be used by at most one VAM to analyze event data.”

According to another embodiment of the invention at least one sensor detects the presence of at least one key ID device within the releasable keys container. The VAM then transmits information about the presence and absence of key identification devices. One sensor, one or more sensors can be used.

“According to another embodiment, the event action can be any one of the following: triggering an alarm; releasing the releasable container key container; transmitting event information to the computer or combinations thereof.”

“The VAM systems according to the invention also include a rechargeable batteries, which is preferred to be a solar-powered rechargeable battery.”

“The wireless transmitters of the systems are configured to communicate with computers through a wireless communication facility or a Zigbee wireless networking protocol.”

The present invention also allows for the transmission of event information from VAM to the computer to store in the database and generate reports related to that event information. Reports can be generated by the computer based upon the event data. These reports include reports that allow for the location of at least one vehicle from the plurality based the event, reports regarding the presence or absence at least 1 of the keys of the plurality based the event, reports related to access to at minimum one of these vehicles based the event, and reports relating attempts to access at most one of them.

“According to yet another embodiment, the present invention provides a method of managing and recording event information related to vehicle access. This includes: (i) assigning one among a plurality VAMs to one vehicle; (ii), assigning a key ID number to a key for that vehicle; (iii), providing information about an individual who is authorized to access the VAMs; and (iv) connecting to a computer with a database for data storage in wireless communications with the VAM, the computer; and processing the event; and (viii) Attaching a key ID device to the key may be one of the steps in assigning a number.

“These and other advantages of this invention will be apparent to those skilled in art in light of the description and industrial applicability, as well as the best-known mode of carrying out the invention as it is described in this document and illustrated in the various figures in the drawings.”

“FIGS. “FIGS. This system 10 consists of vehicle activity modules (VAMs) 12 mounted on vehicles 2. These modules accept data from and indicate various types events such as intrusion events 8 or sales events 4. The VAM 12 contains a key box 14 and a transmitter 18 that relays information to an antennae 20. These antennae are connected to a central computer 22 which has a 24-page database. This database 24 can then be sorted and queried for various reports 26, alarms, or information to support manufacturing orders 30, or any other purpose.

“FIG. “FIG. Each vehicle 2 in the dealer lot will be uniquely identified by a VAM.”

Each VAM 12 is assigned a VIN number and a stock number when it is first introduced to sales inventory. The VAM 12 assigned to the vehicle 2 will remain with it until the vehicle 2 has been sold or removed from stock. VAM 12 will communicate with the dealer facility 24 via standard wireless high-gain antennas 20, usually located on the roof. The antennas 20 will be placed in such a way that VAMs 12 can connect from any area on the lot. Except for remote lots, the antennas 20 will be wired directly into the central PC 22. Some relay technology will be used to transmit the signal to the central computer 22. This PC 22 will collect the event data from the vehicles and deposit it into a 24-bit database. The processing center for all VAM data collection, including event reports 26, ID 60, authorization control, and VAM assignments 36 for each vehicle 2, will be located on the PC system 22.

“The present invention contemplates the use of standard high-gain antennas as well as Zigbee wireless networks protocol. A cellular connection, such as that offered by Digi International and MultiTech Systems, is also possible. Zigbee protocol is highly preferred as it is energy-efficient and does not interfere with 802.11 wi fi or Bluetooth. This protocol can be used to save significant amounts of money and energy. Cellular protocol is also an option because it allows monitoring, data transfer, storage, and other benefits to be done not from a central computer at the site but from any remote location. Remote access also allows for quick transfer of data from multiple sites to one location for analysis, reporting, storage, and so forth.

The daily inventory of all vehicles is required to provide “VAM status reporting” (see FIG. 5 below) doesn’t drop below a threshold before it can be recharged. This is the VAM health-check 40 (FIG. 1), which will not only report the battery status but also any errors detected by VAM self-contained diagnosis software 42. Individuals can also access the web access 25, which allows them to check their status and access reports. They can also be alerted to key events or alarms via Web Access 25.

“FIGS. “FIGS. FIGS. FIGS. If elements have the same functionality or are similar in design, they will be identified by the same element number in both the first and second embodiments. For example, a card reader 50 can refer to both an RFID reader and a magnetic card reader.

“FIGS. The VAM 12’s physical internals are shown in Figures 3-6. The VAM 12 is composed of three main components: the VAM housing, key container module 46 and the system board electronics module 58. The VAM housing 44 contains an ID reader 50. This could be either a magnetic strip reader, or preferably an RFID reader. A release solenoid 52, 54 and a spring system 54 are also included. Also, the VAM housing 44 includes the stainless steel window straps 56. These will be hidden under the VAM housing housing 44. Preferably, the VAM housing 44 is made of high-impact injection molded PVC and a metal or synthetic key chamber. Non-metal materials are used for the VAM housing 44 top cover. This allows wireless signals to travel through the vehicle in any direction. Each VAM is lightweight and compact, making it easy to open and physically handle.

The electronics module 48 is the third component of VAM 12. It contains the electronic circuit board 58. This panel can be removed to allow for repairs by VAM repair centers. This circuit board 58 was custom made to meet high quality standards and uses all the standard, low-cost components.

“Referring also to FIGS. 1. and 2. After reading a valid ID card 60 the ID 60 is validated by the PC database 24 at the dealership. The wireless link 18 confirms this. The validation usually takes a few seconds. The key container 46 will be released once validation has been received. This allows the sales consultant, or any other user to remove the key 16 and gain access to the vehicle. The vehicle will be available to interested customers immediately after a sales event 4. If the customer wants to test drive the vehicle 2, the sales representative will simply verify the driver’s license before taking the customer off the lot. The wireless system 18 records the vehicle leaving the lot. However, it still shows that the vehicle is in an open sale event. This is then recorded by the VAM 12 as a demo drive, attributed to the sales consultant. The VAM 12 also records the time that the vehicle 2 has been off the lot. The sales event is then added to the database for future management follow-ups and sales reporting.

“Any open event must be ended by the key replacement, as verified by key presence sensor 62 or container closure sensor 64.”

“FIG. 4A shows the VAM container 46 fully opened and also the view from the right side of the VAM 12, when it is closed in FIG. 4B.”

“FIGS. “FIGS. The VAM 44 housing is composed of a top cover (82), which houses the electronic board 58, and the bottom cover (84), which contains the key container 46. FIG. 5 shows the latch mechanism 66. FIG. 5 shows the latch mechanism 66 and a set LEDs 68 that indicate status. The wireless transmitter 18 can be found on the circuit board, usually in the upper left corner just below the cover 82. In dashed lines, the circuit board 58 can be seen. The circuit board 58 also contains an intrusion sensor 70. The 38-volt battery pack is located in the left hand corner of the key chamber 46, below the circuit board. A high-efficiency solar panel 72, which is permanent installed in the top of the key chamber 46, helps to keep the battery pack 38 fully charged. It provides the batteries with a trickle charge during the daylight hours.

“The electronic board 58 is a horizontally located circuit board that is located inside the top 82 VAM 12. FIG. FIG. 5. The system board 58 is located directly behind the LEDs68 and almost covers the entire length and width of top cover 82. Two loops of wire run around the outside of the system board (58) and the key presence sensor 62.

“The Key Tag function is an important part of the system. Each vehicle key set 16 includes a small RFID key tag 74 that is attached to a metal wire loop. The key ID tag 74 can be described as a “smart tag”. It transmits an unique ID code when the sensor is present. These key ID tags (74) will be?read’. These key ID tags 74 will be?read? electronically every time the VAM 12 has been accessed, and again when it is closed by the main presence sensor 62. This key ID tag 74’s purpose is to indicate that each time the VAM 12 is accessed, a key set 16 is present and that the key set 16 is correct.

“The key ID tag (74) is usually assigned to a 16-piece key set, which often includes a smart key and signal attenuating containers. An administrative person assigns a VAM 12 when a vehicle 2 goes into inventory. The dealer management system automatically loads vehicle descriptions, such as model, color, and VIN numbers into the server 22 every night. This allows for quick processing. A key presence sensor 62 is used to read the key tag ID 74. It is located on the main board 58 of each VAM 12 and is able to sense or read the tag 74 as long as it is in the VAM container 46. The key presence sensor circuit 62 is a custom-designed circuit. It is designed to read the key tags 74 and 60. The electronic circuit 62 is integrated into the single system board 58 and surrounds it. When in place in VAM 12, it sits just a few inches above key tag 74.

“Another important feature are the key chamber position switches. 76 function. Two micro switches 78 are mounted on the system board. They detect whether the key compartment 46 is open or closed, and whether an immediate request is made to access the VAM 12. Two key chamber position switches, 78, are located at the VAM 12 as well as at the back. The system board 58 is mounted horizontally within an injection-molded top section 80. The switches 78 are located underneath and at the back a VAM 12, which can be seen through a driver’s side window. They contact the solenoid latch (66) at the point where the key chamber 46 closes. The one switch is a “key chamber closed?” The first serves as an indicator, while the second is used to request a wake-up or open indicator.

The VAM 12 also has an intrusion sensor 70. The intrusion sensor 70 sends an alert to dealer security based on the level of disturbance. This sensor 70 is also known as the?disturbance switching? This sensor 70, also known as the?disturbance switch?, is intended for military and automotive defense applications. The intrusion sensor 70, a small and inconspicuous device that is located on the system board (58), along with other electronic components, is designed for automotive and military defense applications. The intrusion sensor 70 can detect abnormal tilt motion and random disturbances in horizontal planes. Every dealership can choose the level and sensitivity they desire from their VAM12 units. This is vital because some areas are more susceptible to vandalism and theft. When there is an actual event, the alerts will be disabled. The RED LED’s 68 will also be used to warn the public by flashing their lights from time-to-time. It can also react to being disturbed during dealership hours. All VAM’s will flash their RED LED’s at random intervals during business hours to deter potential intruders. A watch alert would be sent to dealers or a complete alert to security services, depending on the severity of an intrusion. This allows you to distinguish heavy weather-related disturbances from actual or attempted intrusions.

“In addition security alarms that are activated by disturbances to the system, each VAM12 asks for attention whenever necessary. This includes waking up at set (and controllable intervals) such as every 30 min during business hours or every 5 minutes at night to have an AWOL/MIA fallback to generate an alert.

The extension of organized and recorded event data supports the objective to increase inventory turns and profitability by combining the VAMs 12 information with dealer experience.

“As we have already mentioned, the present system will allow at least three types events. FIGS. 8-10 show flow charts for each one of these event types. 8-10 and 100 are shown for event detection. 7. FIGS. FIGS.

“Generally, the three events 4, 6 and 8 can be detected by any VAM unit 12, which is included in up to 2000 vehicles 102. The information is transmitted to the VAM PC server104 which has on-line access 106. On-line requests are possible to generate reports 108, such as sales assistant reports and intrusion actions and reports. VAM status and checks, vehicle inventories and sales, health checks, VAM status, and health checks. User ID assignment reports can also be generated.

The database 24 was designed to allow maximum flexibility, including the screens provided and any custom reports that the dealer may wish to use. Reports can be sent by email on a regular basis and can also be accessed online by authorized persons. Reports can be delivered in MS Excel format.

Reports such as “missing vehicle” Reports such as “missing vehicle” will quickly reveal all vehicles that have not been properly inspected, are missing or are not available for purchase. Any disturbance to the lockbox will be sent an alarm/alarm to a security firm/dealer manager. This feature is likely to be used as a visual disruption warning (RED LED), and will send out alerts via internet and/or mobile phone message. Example: Intrusion alert for Red Corvette (north lot VIN123456789) and ON STAR-equipped

“FIG. 8 displays a flowchart 112 for a sale event. When a customer requests viewing 114, a sales event 4 is initiated. Assumed to be a Sales Assistant, he has an ID card 60. The Sales Assistant finds the vehicle 2, and asks for access by scanning his ID card 60 through a reader 116. Each step is indicated by red and green LEDs (68), and the electronic tag ID 74 and Sales Assistant ID 122 are recorded in the central computer 120. The server 124 opens a sales event 4. Access to the vehicle 2 is granted as the key 16 for the key container is removed. The vehicle is opened 128 to inspection. Customers are asked if they would like to test drive 130. If no, the key will be returned to key container 132. The sales event will close 142. If yes, the demo time is recorded in the server134. The drive time limit is determined by the server 134. If the limit is exceeded, the key will be returned to the key container 132, and the sale event will be closed 142. Management 138 will be notified if the limit is exceeded. This alert must be cleared 140 prior to the closing of the event 142. An alarm or notification to security agencies or police may be issued if the alert isn’t cleared.

The VAM 12 program is to periodically wake up and check in 144 at set (and manageable) intervals. This is to ensure there is an AWOL/MIA fallback to generate an alert. The VAM then prepares for the next access 146.

“FIG. “FIG. 9” shows a flowchart 147 for events other than sales. 60 ID cards are issued to service personnel, vendors, administrators and porters 148 who may need access to the vehicles. One of these individuals can request access by pressing the VAM150 key container 46 chamber in a slight upward motion. This will activate the “request for wake up?” This activates the?request for wake-up? The LEDs 68 indicate step 152. The VAM 12 reads the key ID tag 74 and validates it by the server 154. The server 156 validates the user ID 60. The key chamber 46 can now be opened if the ID is valid 158. This will activate the unlocking solenoid 52. The key chamber 46 will then swing down, exposing the vehicle key set 160. The server records Key information 162 and User ID 162. The key 16 is then removed 164 from key container 46 and the vehicle 2 is opened 165. It is recorded the time the vehicle was opened and, later, it is determined if the dealer has not given the maximum demo/key missing time. 168. If the answer is ‘yes,’ the key is returned to its container and the non-sales activity is closed 170. Management is notified 172 if the limit is exceeded. The non-sales event will be closed 170 if the management is not cleared 174. The VAM will then be ready for next access 176. If the alert isn’t cleared, an alarm could be set or security and police agencies may be notified.

“FIG. “FIG. The electronic assignment of the vehicle key 16 and key tags74 is done to VAM 180. When the VAM 12 182 is opened 182, the key tag 74 can be checked to determine if it is the correct key. If “yes”, the server 22 determines if the event occurred during normal operating hours 186. If yes, If?yes?, the vehicle 2’s opening time is recorded. The time the vehicle is returned is determined if it is returned within the maximum drive time limit of 188. If the answer is ‘yes’, the VAM 12 will be ready for access 208. If the limit is exceeded, a missing key alert will be sent to management 190. This must be cleared 192 prior to the VAM being ready for the next access. 208 An alarm or notification to security agencies or police may sound if the alert isn’t cleared.

“If the key is incorrect, a Missing Key Alert is sent to management 190. This must be cleared 192 before VAM can be ready for next access 208.

“If the key is correct, 184, but it’s after-hours for the dealership, 186, the VAM12 checks in every 5 mins 194. The VAM 12 will be ready for your next access 208 if the check-in is complete 196. Management and security are notified 198 if the check-in has not been completed.

“The VAM 12 has an intrusion sensor 70 that detects any disturbance to the module. If there is an intrusion detected 200, it is determined if it occurred during normal operating hours. If the answer is yes, the Red LED will flash as a warning and the VAM 12 will be ready for next access 208. A Dealer may request that an alarm be sent at any time of the day, but this is unlikely to be used as most thefts take place at night. If the alarm is received after normal dealer hours 202, an intrusion high alert is sent to security management 204. This must be cleared at 192 before the VAM can then be ready for next access 208.

“FIG. “FIG. 11″ shows a schematic diagram for a system and method that further illustrates embodiments of this invention. FIG. 11 shows that at least one VAM200 is available for attachment to at minimum one vehicle 202, and preferably for multiple vehicles on a lot.”

“The VAM 200 is usually connected to a computer system (204), which has a database that stores the information received from various VAMs 200 while they are operating through any number known wireless networks. System 214 is used to create and manage identification devices such as key tags or ID cards.

The term computer is broadly used in the context the present invention. It can be any computer that is connected to the VAMs. This could be either an on-site or networked computer. It may be a standard desktop computer or laptop computer. Or it may be connected to one or more remote computers. It is preferred that the computer system includes a user interface with software that allows remote administration of the systems and methods, either at the site or at a remote location.

“The VAMs 200 can be connected wirelessly 203 by at least one wireless router, 206 strategically placed on the lot. However, other devices such repeaters or transponders could also be used. Site-specific details such as the number and placement of routers 206 can be altered in many ways. The routers 206 can be connected directly to the computer systems 204 or may be connected to a gateway (or router 205) that conditions the information for distribution to computer system 204. The computer system 204 also includes a host computer (such as a server) connected to a network, such the Internet, 210. A web-based browser program can connect any number of remote computers (212) to the host computer.

Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth networks and Zigbee networks are all suitable wireless networks. Cellular networks are also acceptable. Because of their flexibility and power consumption, wireless networks using the invention prefer to use either a Zigbee-based wireless network or an cellular network. The Zigbee wireless network protocol offers significant benefits. This protocol is very energy efficient and can be used to design VAMs.

The wireless connection to host computer 208 is possible via a remote computer 212 that is connected to the server (e.g. via the Internet 210). A cellular modem connection 218 is another option. Because the cellular connection 218 allows the VAMs 200 and host computer 208 to stay in communication with each other, it is especially advantageous. The VAMs can be used even if the local computer systems are not functioning properly, overloading, or otherwise damaged.

“The systems and methods of the present invention also include key identification devices and user ID devices such as key ID tags, individual identification cards, or key ID tags. These devices provide secure access to VAMs and allow for the monitoring of keys and vehicle locations. These devices allow for the recording and monitoring of vehicle events, including whether the vehicle was accessed or whether the key is in the VAM. These devices can be RFID, magnetic, biometric, or tag devices, as well as other devices. These devices can be created and coded on-site. This allows for quick and easy management and creation of identification devices. These systems are readily available and well-known to those skilled in the art. These systems include commercially available fingerprint readers, access card with magnetic strips or bar codes, and RFID cards and fobs.

The key identification device attaches to each vehicle’s key and includes information that identifies the vehicle, such as VIN numbers, make and color, and other pertinent information. The user identification device, which is usually unique to each individual authorized to access vehicles, contains information about the specific user (e.g., name, position and level of access or employee ID number). It also stores information about the vehicles and users so that they can be updated to the computers to promote active management of access, security, and inventory monitoring.

The VAM contains a storage device that can receive and store data, a wireless transmitter and at least one sensor. It also includes a key container with a releasable key to receive at most one key and a processor. A rechargeable battery is included in the VAM, which should be preferably a solar-charged battery.

The storage device could be any storage device that is known to the inventors. The storage device may include internal RAM storage devices as well as other types of memory storage such flash memory devices.

“Wireless transmitters that are suitable for the invention are known to ordinary skilled persons in the art.” Wireless transmitters that can be used to connect wireless home automation systems, such as heating, air conditioning, and lights, are suitable.

“The sensors may be any number of sensors, depending on the application. The sensors that can read information from identification devices are keypads, magnetic strip readers and biometric readers. Intrusion sensors are also possible to detect any disturbances in the vehicle or VAM. These sensors can detect attempts to tamper or break into the vehicle. The sensors can receive and transmit information from identification devices as well as disturbances to the storage device. They are useful because they enable monitoring of authorized access to VAMs and also capture valuable event information such as customer telephone numbers, names, addresses and so on. This information can be used to generate reports, marketing effectiveness information and sales follow-up information.

“The VAM also includes a processor that can access and analyze event information, compare it to reference information stored within the storage device, and initiate actions as dictated by the identification systems. This could be triggered by an alarm, the release of the releasable keys container and the transmission of the event information to a computer.

“The releasable container contains a solenoid which activates the container to open upon verification of access to the identification devices. The key container should be opened only to the extent that the trigger event occurs. For further identification of vehicle keys, the VAM can transmit information to the storage device about the state of the releasable container. The VAM can transmit a warning signal to computer if the container is left open or the key is lost for a certain period of time. The VAM may transmit information once the container is closed. This will allow the computer to store the time that the key was removed from it. Alternately, sensors can detect when and how long the key was removed.

“The VAM should be able to operate autonomously for extended periods of times without the need for access to the computer to verify event information, such as whether the user has permission to access the vehicle.”

“FIG. “FIG. 12” identifies a flow chart that illustrates the operation 300 for one embodiment of the VAM connected to a computer system. The VAM initially receives event information 302 via the sensors. The key or user identification devices often provide this event information. Other devices may also provide event information, such as interaction with keypads. The event information is stored 304 within the VAM. Additional information such as key or user identification information and time of access can also be associated with event information.

“Once event information has been stored 304 on the storage device, a programed processor accesses it and analyzes it. The processor initiates an action based upon the event information 308, or communication 310 via the computer system 312, such as a wireless router. The processor will open the releasable container if the event information is about access to the VAM. The processor can be programmed to perform any number of actions upon receiving event information. It may also compare the event information with reference information stored in storage device 314. Further, the information related to the initiated action may be transferred 314 into the computer system 314 to allow storage and analysis.

“The VAM processor initiates communication 310 between the computer system and the VAM processor via wireless connection. This communication can be scheduled to occur at regular intervals, such as once per day, or based on event information. The communication 310 between the computer system 314 allows the VAM to access and maintain current reference information related to event information. It also provides the stored information to the VAM, such as information about intrusion events or sales events. The reference information used by the VAM to verify information received from the sensors is downloaded 312 onto the VAMs via the computer 312. This happens independent of any event information being detected. This autonomous operation has the advantages of lower power consumption and remote use at a tire shop, paint shop, shopping center sale or tent sale.

“FIGS. 13 and 14 depict a VAM400 in which at most one sensor is a keypad 402 for access and information entry. A keypad system 402 can be used either in lieu of or in addition to a magnetic card reader or RFID reader (not illustrated). Additional benefits are provided by the keypad system 402 for the VAM400 and other related systems. The keypad system 402. allows employees to enter and capture important customer information. This includes contact information like a telephone number. The information can be sent to the computer system by the employee, sales staff, or management. The system can access this information for further analysis and reporting. The keypad 402 also provides additional security and redundancy. Access numbers and employee pin numbers can be used to manage access to VAM 400. These access numbers can be assigned to a specific employee or predetermined numbers that are used by all VAMs 400 at a given time. For example, a daily access number, a revolving number, similar to those used with RSA SecurID. systems. The addition of a magnetic number 404, RFID (not displayed), or any other entry device and pin numbers provides additional security in the event that an unauthorized person gains access to a card. The most suitable keypads 402 are commercially available programmable keys. The keypads and VAM housing are designed to withstand harsher environments such as extreme heat or cold.

“In another embodiment, VAM 400 can be configured to require two forms identification before granting access. In the case where the VAM 400 has a keypad sensor 402. and an RFID sensor (not illustrated), the VAM 400 may be configured to recognize the RFID card of the user as well as enter information into the keypad 402. Alternativly, the user might be asked to enter the telephone number of the potential customer into the keypad 402, or another code. This adds security in case an unauthorized user attempts to use RFID cards of others. The customer’s number is required to capture vital information that allows dealers to follow up on customers who are interested in buying cars.

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