BY NICK FORTUNA
Technological innovations not only take on a new importance during challenging times, they also reflect some pretty impressive ideas — some due to necessity and other that are, well, just really interesting.
Several tech solutions that have gained steam recently directly affect the car wash industry and how operators run their companies. Some are related to preventing damage to cars during the wash and giving customers more payment options. Others apply to small businesses, in general, such as new devices to enforce social-distancing requirements and new training tools. Here are just a few of the most interesting.
1) CARS THAT KNOW THE DRILL
Cleaning cars without damaging them is job No. 1 for car wash operators, and new technology is allowing automakers to lend them a hand. The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS has a car wash mode that quickly prepares the luxury crossover SUV for a wash, a useful feature that surely has piqued the interest of rival automakers.
Drivers have two ways to activate car wash mode: selecting an icon on the vehicle settings menu in the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment system, which is built into the car, or by voice command. Just say, “Hey, Mercedes, enter car wash mode,” and the SUV’s air suspension will lift the vehicle to its maximum height, making it easier for the car wash to clean the undercarriage.
Entering car wash mode prompts the SUV to fold in its side mirrors, close the windows and sunroof, temporarily disable the rain-sensing wipers, switch the climate control to its recirculation setting and activate the 360-degree camera to help the driver avoid bumping into anything in tight quarters. Car wash mode shuts off automatically as soon as the driver pulls out of the car wash and hits 12 mph.
“For the driver, that means you can just sit back and relax,” Ola Källenius, Chief Executive of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, said in a promotional video.
Car wash mode was introduced as a standard feature on the 2020 GLS at the New York Auto Show in April 2019, and other models are sure to follow suit.
2) 3D MAPPING TECHNOLOGY
Of course, automakers aren’t the only ones going high-tech to prevent damage at car washes. Manufacturers of car wash equipment keep raising the bar, incorporating new technology that allows operators to give every car a customized wash.
Take, for example, the IQ Car Wash System developed by Missouri-based D&S Car Wash Equipment Co., which uses three-dimensional mapping software to tailor the wash to each vehicle. As vehicles enter the in-bay automatic and the first chemical is applied, a propriety system of ultrasonic sensors and infrared photoelectric sensors scan the car to create an extremely detailed 3D map.
The software program puts data from the map through an algorithm to determine the optimal way to position the car wash equipment throughout the wash. Jerry Canfield, the company’s Chief Innovation Officer, said the system increases a car wash’s throughput because each piece of equipment knows precisely where it is supposed to be and when.
In a traditional setup, sensors on each piece of equipment react to the presence of the car and only then begin to reposition the equipment accordingly, which makes for a “reactive” system that wastes time, he said.
“We’re able to get the car a lot cleaner than if we were just bumping into it and moving it along the way,” Canfield said. “We can do it a lot quicker because we know ahead of time exactly what we’re going to do, and we can do it with a lot less chemicals and water because we know exactly what the car looks like so we only spray it where it needs to be sprayed.”
3) ALEXA AT THE CAR WASH
Driving with the Amazon Alexa voice assistant doesn’t exactly count as carpooling, but she can come in handy at a car wash.
Payment by voice command is an emerging trend that seems perfectly timed for the COVID-19 era. It allows customers to pay for things without ever handing money or a credit card to a worker, touching payment kiosks or even rolling down their window. In July, 7-Eleven announced a pilot program that allows customers in its loyalty program to pay for gas using the Siri voice assistant on the Apple iPhone.
San Diego-based Beacon Mobile has brought similar technology to car washes with VoiceWash, which allows customers to pay using Alexa. VoiceWash is intended to complement Beacon Mobile’s existing branded car wash mobile app platform. Right now, it only works with Alexa, but Alan Nawoj, the company’s founder and CEO, said plans call for an expansion of the service to voice assistants such as Google Assistant.
Customers must have the Alexa app built into their vehicle or installed on their smartphone and then have to install their local car wash’s Alexa “skill,” which is essentially a feature or an app. Customers then enable location services and payments, then speak to Alexa upon arriving at the car wash.
If a customer were to visit Volcano Car Wash, for example, here is how a typical VoiceWash conversation might go, according to Nawoj:
Customer: “Alexa, open Volcano Wash.”
Alexa: “Welcome back! It looks like you are at our Main Street location. Which wash would you like today?”
Customer: “The Ultimate Wash.”
Alexa: “Great! Your card on file has been charged $15, and your Ultimate Wash will start momentarily. Thank you for visiting Volcano Wash, and we hope to see you again soon!”
Nawoj said VoiceWash has several different mechanisms for activating the car wash. For example, if the car wash’s hardware supports it, VoiceWash can send a signal to automatically start the wash once payment is received through Alexa, and the customer won’t need to touch anything or roll down a window.
“All of this happens very quickly, and it’s completely voice activated,” he said. “It’s totally contactless, it’s fast, it’s easy for customers to use, and it opens up a new sales channel that is totally voice-driven. Even though Beacon Mobile was working on VoiceWash well before the pandemic began, the contactless aspect of this technology makes it even more attractive in today’s unique business climate.”
4) VIRTUAL REALITY FOR TRAINING
Prior to the pandemic, car washes were among the many small businesses struggling to attract and retain talented workers amid historically low unemployment rates. It seems hard to believe right now, but those conditions could eventually resurface when life returns to something akin to normal.
In response, companies such as Walmart, UPS and KFC are turning to virtual reality as a way to onboard new hires quickly and ensure that every employee gets the same high level of training.
Pregis, an Illinois-based manufacturer of packaging supplies, is offering VR training to its customer base, which consists largely of manufacturers and e-commerce order-fulfillment centers. The company makes VR tutorials that illustrate how to use packaging materials effectively and efficiently, how to pack delicate or specialty items and how to operate automated packing machines.
The company says the fully immersive VR experience helps workers retain more of what they are being taught than if they were in a classroom setting. Since the technology is available on demand, companies don’t have to devote manpower to training new hires, and employees can gain practice on potentially dangerous pieces of equipment in a risk-free environment.
5) DEVICES FOR SOCIAL DISTANCING
We’ve all heard construction machinery incessantly beep as it backs up, forcing everyone to take notice of a potential hazard. Now, a host of companies including Triax Technologies are bringing that audible alert system to workers on foot. It’s an effort to promote social distancing on jobsites and to simplify contact tracing during the COVID-19 era.
As part of its Proximity Trace solution, Triax Technologies outfits construction workers with TraceTag devices, which vaguely resemble the beepers and pagers of the 1990s and attach to workers’ hard hats or clothing.
TraceTags sound an audible alert and flash their red LED lights when workers get within close proximity of each other. As the separation distance decreases, the devices can intensify their alert to signal increasing risk, and they don’t stop until the workers reestablish adequate spacing. The alarm can be silenced or temporarily disabled with the push of a button, allowing workers with appropriate personal protective equipment to work in tight quarters without generating an alert.
TraceTags continuously collect data on close-contact interactions, noting which workers are near each other and for how long. That data is then uploaded to the cloud, and supervisors can access it through an online dashboard. Should an employee test positive for COVID-19, a supervisor can print out a contact-tracing report immediately, allowing the company to identify and isolate anyone who may have had contact with the sick worker.
“The process of contact tracing previously would have taken them hours or days to do manually, and it would rely on schedules and memories, which can be unreliable,” said Lori Peters, Vice President of Marketing for Triax Technologies. “This is a very accurate way to identify those who may have been affected. Rather than potentially having to close down an entire site, they have it isolated among a few individuals.”