Monday, February 19, 2007

High Tech Parking

Remember the scene in i,ROBOT, when Will Smith, a.k.a. Detective Del Spooner, heads into the parking garage and his car is swept up by a giant hook, which carries it off in automated fashion to hang with all the other cars like freshly ironed clothes at the dry cleaner? After my initial reaction of, "Cool!," I remember having the fleeting thought that today's cars would never stand up to that kind of treatment. The bumpers would pull off, or the axles would snap, or whatever else can go wrong when you're hanging cars from their various auto appendages, and the cars would plummet to their sad vehicular ends: Death by Gravity. This was quickly followed by the notion that cars-of-the-future must be built out of space-age materials, designed to resist trivial impact like those from giant hooks, and maybe even other bumpers (kind of like the cars from the fifties.) This could have led me down many rabbit trails, including forays into stewing over planned obsolescence and the need for light fuel-efficient vehicles in a reality where tyrants control much of the world's oil, but i,ROBOT is a really good movie, and I couldn't stay in reality for long, at least until Will Smith had vanquished the psychotic, power-mad computer.

Once the movie's over, though, putting all the rabbit trails aside, removing the science fictional elements, and the complications caused by the Earth's gravitational pull, there's a lot of appeal to the idea of automated parking garages. They could maximize the available parking space and minimize the driving-in-circles-looking-for-someone-who's-leaving part of stowing the car while you're at the hospital visiting your friend with the newly-removed appendix. It could also mean that, since more parking would be available, you might actually be able to afford to park your car downtown sometimes during the work day, somewhere within a two-mile radius of your office. Wouldn't that be handy on those days when you have to rush off after work to meet your parents at the airport, or hurry to your daughter's school in time to catch her last soccer game of the season? (Traffic allowing, of course.) Don't you wish that someone would get on this whole automated parking thing?

Needless to say, since I'm bothering to write about this at all, somebody has. In fact, a lot of people have. Automated garages are popping up all over the world. Gizmag has a look at one in particular, AutoMotion, which recently opened in New York City (a prime candidate for expanded parking options, if ever there was one.) It's a fully automated garage:

Once a customer drives inside the garage's entry/exit room and locks their car, they swipe a card to activate the system and leave. Their vehicle remains motionless, transported on a pallet automatically to its storage bay. When returning, customers swipe their card and their car is returned back to the entry/exit point and the customer starts the car and drives away.

It's all very quick and painless. There are a lot of advantages to a system where humans are not involved in the storage process:

The current generation of parking garages has space-consuming access ramps and lots of access lanes that never get parked on, and also needs enough height for a very tall human being to comfortably walk upright – rather than the space-efficient compact box into which your car is slipped in an automated system. The ramps aren’t needed when you have a car lift and a computerized racking system. Whatsmore, a custom-built automated car parking facility of the same size as a conventional carpark can hold at least twice as many cars, offering double or more the income after a safe refurbishing investment. It’s more efficient for the customer (less than 2.5 minutes to get your car), costs less to run (no human attendants are required), there are no accidents, dents or scratches (because computers move the cars, not humans), and as the cars cannot be reached by other car park users, there’s no chance of theft or vandalism.

No scratches, vandalism, or tipping parking attendants? The car's back to you in 2.5 minutes? You don't have to climb ten flights of stairs at the end of a long day, or ride in a stinky elevator with sticky floors? Bring on the automation!! I'm not the only one who thinks this is a good idea. Stolzer Parkhaus, the developer of AutoMotion, has 28 automated garages, spread around 11 counties, so far. As the previous quote mentioned, it's a good deal for the land-owner/business operator, too.

Of course, there's always the concern that the system will break down while your car is inside, leaving you with no access to your vehicle during some crucial moment in life. In an effort to make sure your schedule is unaffected by technical difficulties (the name of the game being "repeat customers"), automated garages will not be completely people free. It will be in the best interest of the businesses involved to keep things running smoothly. AutoMotion is no exception:

AutoMotion installed its first automated parking in 1996 in Kronach, Germany. The company maintains teams of specially trained mechanics, available 24 hours, seven days a week in tandem with traditional parking service maintenance firms. Every parking cardholder is given an emergency telephone number to summon expert assistance.

This is probably about as much assurance as we're going to get: a team of people waiting to "get right on it" if something goes wrong. That might be a bit disconcerting for the techno-phobic, but really it's no different than what we do every time we get into an elevator. That technology is just a bit older, and more time tested. We'll get used to this one too, and be grateful for it when we go for years without worries like whether someone is going to break into the car, looking to steal the laptop that we left in the SUV because we didn't want to have to carry it around the mall for two hours. It may not be a flashy as a giant hook coming and hanging your car in a big old "car closet," but I still think, "Cool!" at the thought of the Auto Auto Garage.

(Note: If you're having trouble getting your brain around a system where cars are moved with no ramps or people, head over to the Gizmag article. There are lots of pictures to show you how it works.)