Maker Series: Jeff Rulifson & AAA’s iPhone App

Innovation Meets Tenacity. There’s no stopping an idea who’s time is right, as long as you keep at it and not let “rules and limits” hold you back.


Apple’s App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch has garnered a ton of attention and rightly so. In little more than a year, there have been 1.5 billion downloads and it has attracted more than 65,000 programs. Indeed, as their ads exclaim, there is an app for everything.

My ears perked up when I heard about the development of a roadside assistance app that the Automobile Association of America (AAA) was doing. For sure, I thought it was a great move that would benefit the members. But I was also curious about the number of hurdles that needed to be jumped both internally and to get through what some developers feel is an arduous approval process at Apple.

I got a hold of Jeff Rulifson, the Telematics Product Manager for AAA, who was responsible for shepherding the AAA Roadside app from concept to market. He has a very cool job — working on breakthrough innovations for AAA (i.e. apps for devices and telematics-based services).

Note: Telematics is the term used to describe the use of computers and telecommunications to enhance the functionality of motor vehicles, for example, wireless data applications in cars, trucks, and buses. The GM’s OnStar service is one example of telematics in use.


Jeff has been at AAA for six years and working in this space since the early 90s. I asked him a number of questions, including how it was dealing with Apple’s approval process. Here’s what he had to say.


Q: Let’s start with the app. What is is? Where can I find it?

JR: The AAA Roadside app enables AAA members to complete a request for Roadside Assistance all by themselves. It allows the member to create a profile (consisting of their name, AAA membership number, phone number and vehicles), select the type of problem they are having, confirm where they are and send the information to AAA. In return, they get sent a confirmation number and they are all set.

Also included is a “While You are Waiting” section that has information and locations of nearby AAA services that can help when you are having car trouble. Services like AAA Approved repair shops, hotels, rental cars and any available car parts stores offering AAA discounts.

There are also links off of the home page to display your AAA card and search for local repair shops.

To find AAA Roadside, go to the Travel section of Apple’s iTune Store.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

JR: A few different things came together. One of the projects that I worked on when I first came to AAA was the Road Service Online product. It is the basis for what we built here, but is available on the Web. I spent about ten years at Motorola working on phone and wireless data applications and in 2003 it seemed like having road service on the phone in addition to the Web would be better for the member.

The final piece(s) that fell into place were the iPhone 3G with GPS and the App Store. We have been keeping a close eye on the wireless space and prior to the App Store it was not easy to get an app, especially a free app, to a broad audience. The carrier’s channels had their challenges and wireless customers were not yet “app savvy”. What Apple laid out seemed like a great way to get into the market and present apps directly to consumers.

Q: How did you manage to convince AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah to let you do it?

JR: There wasn’t much convincing needed. This was a good idea and we knew it was in the best interest of our members. This enabled me to approach the leader of our group with the concept and get buy in very quickly – like in a few minutes. From there I worked to lay out the app and bring in a developer. It was vital that we engage our National office who operates many of the servers that we needed to integrate with. The cooperation was outstanding.

Q: Any stories you’d like to share?

JR: We ran a focus group in San Francisco consisting of members with iPhones and they loved the concept, which was encouraging. Later that same afternoon, we found a “tweet” from one of the participants talking about this cool new app that AAA was coming out with.

Q: How long did it take to develop?

JR: As like some projects, longer that we expected. We started with the design in November and had hopes of being in the market in the early spring. We added some features which pushed back the launch till summertime.

Q: Did you have a beta test period?

JR: We tested with internal staff and “friends and family”. We were able to test all of the backend separately from the user interface (UI) which made things easier.

Q: How many people were involved?

JR: Overall 25 to 30. Some people with iPhones had early versions and tested nearly every day. Others we would lend a phone to and they would give us their input as a consumer.

Q: How hard was it to program for the iPhone?

It was fairly straight forward. This app is a combination of handset client and web kit. There were things about the iPhone that we had to learn along the way like how best to get a good fix from the GPS, but there is plenty of documentation and boards to go to for input.

Q: What was it like working with Apple?

JR: They have been great. We are fortunate in that we have a brand that they recognize and they have been very encouraging. Once it was released, Apple helped promote it, which resulted in the AAA Roadside app being n the top ten most popular free travel apps since shortly after launch.

Q: What was the process like to get the app into the store for approval?

JR: Apple does a very good job in separating developer relations from app approvals to marketing. That way nobody gets to take short cuts or get any favors. We were referred to the online tools and site for the App Store and when we were ready we sent it in. It took a couple of weeks for approval. The app is pretty straight forward and we did not get any requests for changes.



“Invention is hard work, but it is also play. Ultimately, all inventors and innovators must somehow accommodate the rules and limits of the real world as that world exists and is limited at the moment; however the most successful inventors never begin with rules and limits. Instead they give free rein to the imagination and do not censor their ideas. Cutting and trimming to fit reality should come only after the cloth, in all its wild magnificence, has been woven.”

-“Edison on Innovation” by Alan Axelrod

edisonbookHearing Jeff’s story made me run to grab Alan Axelrod’s book from my shelf.   I don’t know whether Jeff has read this book or not, but he certainly seems to have internalized its message.

Also, Jeff’s journey from concept to market fits the Edison quote (“Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”) because it truly takes tenacity and rolling up your sleeves to shepherd anything to market these days.

It seems to me that there is no stopping an idea who’s time is right… as long as you keep working at it smartly and tenaciously.

AAA members will certainly benefit from this free app.

Jeff indicated the response has been positive and work is underway on a version for the CAA in Canada. No doubt, like Edison, there are more inventions up Jeff’s sleeve.


To get a hold of Jeff:

Jeff Rulifson
AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah
(415) 640-8612

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