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Valet parking, robot style

  • Story Highlights
  • Automated car parks alleviate the need to drive up endless ramps
  • No pedestrian access to the storage center, so threat of theft reduced
  • Space used more efficiently than traditional multi-story car parks
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By James Snodgrass for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Parking. It's a problem nearly as old as the automobile itself. As city rents rise, developers are under pressure to maximize yields from their real estate -- and this has been squeezing out the traditional parking lot.

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Traditional multi-storey car parks use space inefficiently. And they can be unpleasant environments to visit at night.

The twentieth century solution was the multi-story car park. But that has its limitations. Because of the ramps, elevators and maneuvering space, each floor has significantly less storage space than a flat lot. And that means fewer cars and less revenue.

For some people, multi-story car parks are a source of dread. Never mind the obvious safety issues -- how many celluloid kidnaps, murders and robberies have taken place in dimly-lit multi-story car parks? -- many people don't like car parks because they're terrified of denting their fenders or scratching their precious alloy wheels.

The act of parking has become more stressful for drivers who don't like maneuvering into tight spots because of tighter spaces and supposedly helpful driver aids, whose relentless beeping make reversing into a space a more, not less, hectic experience.

A low-tech solution was valet parking: Drive up to the parking lot, exchange your car keys for a ticket and leave the stress of piloting your six-feet-wide automobile into a space that's six-feet-and-four-inches wide to somebody else.

That's putting a lot of trust into another human being. You're trusting that the person you gave the car keys to actually is an employee of the hotel, parking lot or members' club. You're trusting that they have the appropriate liability insurance should they ding a wing or scrape a door. And you're trusting that they don't -- like the attendants in the 1986 movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" -- take your precious Ferrari on a madcap high speed chase through Chicago.

The parking lots of the future address the concerns of both landowners (by maximizing the use of space) and of drivers (by offering greater security and ease of use). Parking automation systems take the act of parking out of the hands of drivers and into the cogs, gears and hydraulic arms of robots. Multi-storey car parks stop being buildings, designed with human access in mind, and become machines for storing automobiles -- warehouses of cars.

The comparison with warehouses is not an idle one. The technology behind automated car parks has its origins in the automated material handling systems used in factories and warehouses.

There are several companies producing automated parking systems, including U-ParkIt in New Zealand and Stolzer Parkhuas in Germany, but the basic principle behind all systems is the same. The driver drives up to a ticket machine as he or she would in a conventional car park. The driver then rolls down the window and picks up a ticket or swipes a credit card.

In a conventional car park a barrier would then raise and the driver would negotiate a series of ramps of ramps and turns before finding a parking space.

But in an automated lot, that's it. The driver walks out of the car and back onto the street. The floor onto which the car was driven is essentially a pallet in an automated warehouse. The car, and the floor on which it rests, is raised or lowered into the warehouse area and stacked into position. Because there is no need to design around the human form there are no ramps, no elevators and no fire escape staircases. Likewise as nobody goes in or out of the parked cars, the cars can be stored closer together without any unpleasant opening door / unblemished paintwork incidents.

But, like any new technology, there can be teething problems. America's first automated car park, in Hoboken, New Jersey, made news in 2004 when an unoccupied Cadillac Deville fell six stories. In 2005 the same lot dropped a Jeep four stories. Despite these incidents the operator, Robotic Parking Systems, insists that cars are less likely to suffer accidental damage than in a traditional car park. Indeed the company has been selected to build the world's largest automated car park in Dubai.

America's most recent automated car park opened in New York's Chinatown earlier this year. The new building contains a 65-vehicle automated lot, a 24-unit apartment building and ground floor retail in a space that once housed a 100-vehicle car park.

The project was built by Automotion Parking Systems, and utilizes the automated parking systems developed by Stolzer Parkhaus, whose first automated parking facility opened in 1994.

But are consumers willing to put their precious automobiles in the hands of robots? Ari Milstein is Automotion's executive director explains: "The consumer adoption of this technology can be closely compared to that of the ATM. As there was a adoption period before the 'masses' were comfortable using a machine to process banking transactions it is similar here.

"However, as the experience with the ATM proves when you have a technology that is valuable to both the user and the merchant you have the makings of a successful product. The ATM allows banks to reduce an entire bank branch into the size of a machine. Simultaneously, customers get the benefit of the convenience and service an ATM provides. Similarly, the parking system shrinks the amount of space required for parking cars and provides customers with a convenient and secure parking method versus conventional alternatives."

Milstein estimates that a robotic parking facility can hold two to three times as many cars as a similarly-sized conventional parking lot. And he emphasizes the safety benefits of the system: "The entire parking system is a sterile environment that has no pedestrian access. The only access into the garage is through two access doors which are alarmed. Because no one ever enters the system, plus the recorded surveillance system that monitors and records the activity in the garage 24/7 the security that our system offers is revolutionary compared with conventional, difficult to secure parking facilities."

Each vehicle takes around two minutes to process. While that might seem less than instant, it compares favorably with the alternative -- taking the elevator to the seventh floor, finding you car and then driving down endless ramps praying that your alloys don't make contact with the concrete skirts.

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Would you let a robot park your car? What do you think of automated parking systems? Share your thoughts and read others' views in the Just Imagine forum. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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