Robot Parking? The Rise of the New Automated Parking Garage

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Have you ever seen a robot valet?

With today’s technologies, automated parking facilities are popping up in urban areas around the country, but believe it or not, this idea dates all the way back to 1951.

The first “Park-o-mat,” which opened in the nation’s capital on K Street Northwest, between 14th and 15th Streets, looked quite a bit different than today’s generation of parking robots. From film reels that you can see in places like Shutterstock or this Greater Washington blog, the Park-o-mat looked a lot like a regular concrete parking garage, with regular old elevator buttons that an operator used to get cars into and out of storage.

By contrast, today’s automated parking garages are often airy steel and glass affairs, with a distinctly modern build, and operated by powerful software that can stow away vehicles with precision.


So how do these modern robotic parking garages work?

We talked to Joe DePoto of Westfalia U.S.A. in York, PA earlier this month about what it takes to build and deploy these types of systems. Westfalia has designed automated systems for both vehicles and pallet freight.

First, DePoto said, you have to have a concrete idea of what each garage is intended for. Most new automated garages, he said, are in big cities, where they’re used to house the vehicles of apartment or condominium dwellers in land-locked areas.

Beyond that, designers have to look at the interface that operators will use.

“What are you going to walk up to?” DePoto said. “It can be a little daunting.”

Many of these garages have kiosks or touch screens or other user-friendly options that allow customers to park or retrieve their own cars with minimal training. Although Westfalia recommends having a skilled person on site, there’s no guarantee that the users of a system will always have someone like a valet to help them, so systems have to be simple. DePoto said garages will often have a “swipe card” that has pertinent data on it. Westfalia makes its own software that will work off of the interface, but payment is handled through third-party software.

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

The future of automated parking

The Park-o-mat eventually went out of style, but we have less space in our cities now, so this idea is making a comeback, and city planners have been looking at the pros and cons of this approach.

The benefits of an automated parking system are evident: No more cruising around a dark parking garage looking for a spot. You get the best convenience and security that these high-dollar, high-tech systems can offer.

As for the challenges, DePoto did go over some of the things that engineers look at when trying to optimize automation. One is the evaluation of peak times: For example, if there are 100 commuters all going to work at 8 a.m., that can cause problems. Then there’s the safety aspect: DePoto stressed that there is a system in place to check with car owners about whether people, or pets, or special items, are in a car that’s being warehoused. Beyond that, he said, people have to use the systems responsibly.

“We trust [the customer] as an individual.” DePoto said.

Another big challenge? The waiting.

“We’re an impatient society.” DePoto said, citing fast food, fast Internet and other modern conveniences. All of that has hard-wired our brains for constant activity, so waiting a few minutes for a car can seem like forever – but remember, a human valet isn’t any faster.

Whose garage is it?

Another issue with these types of systems involves software rights. Because the software is so proprietary, there are situations where conflicts can arise between the operating company and the client that owns the garage or property. Perhaps most famously, in 2006, a Hoboken, NJ facility was essentially held hostage because the owners of the garage’s software was attempting to block a change of building management.

Challenges notwithstanding, automated parking can be a big amenity for modern tenants or shoppers or anyone just looking for a place to park in a city. With the technology becoming more common, look for these modern conveniences to start appearing in your downtown area sooner rather than later.

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