Conveyor Safety - Good for Productivity, the Bottom Line, and PR
By Pete Ness
For many young children, the excitement of riding through the car wash tunnel rivals a visit to an amusement park. To be fair, seeing the entire process — soaping, rinsing, drying, and polishing — from inside a vehicle can be enjoyable even for us adults.
My first memories of the experience are slightly different than those of today’s kids. Like many of us, I grew up around the business. I started working for my uncle’s full service car wash during high school, long before the express exterior phenomenon. The job required everything from operating the cash register to drive-off and installing equipment.
I spent the next 20 years pursuing a career in software, but remained involved with the business learned in my youth and stayed in contact with car wash operators from around the country. I later partnered with my uncle, operating a chain of high-volume express locations. In those two decades, we saw the express exterior concept revolutionize the entire industry and forever change how businesses around the country operate.
Today, the advent of unlimited plans means more people than ever are purchasing car washes — and more drivers are remaining in their vehicles during the ride through the tunnel. It’s this advancement that also presents operators with a significant challenge.
The car wash industry has a growing problem. While we’ve seen the express model improve the customer experience, save time, reduce labor, and drive volume (what was once a 30-minute stop might now take as little as three minutes), having a driver inside their vehicle during the entire car wash process has introduced an entirely new set of problems. Quite simply, this added variable has increased the likelihood of in-tunnel collisions.
In-tunnel collisions occur between the start and end of the tunnel. For the most part, we’ve covered accidents at the exit with eyes and loops. These tools do an excellent job at preventing collisions, but they only protect the exit. Accidents can occur anywhere in the tunnel.
We’ve all seen it happen — the driver may accidentally bump the steering wheel or tap the brakes. Or maybe they unknowingly put the vehicle in park. Then there’s the rare but possible and growing occurrence that a car’s sensor “sees” a brush or another vehicle and stops itself. In all these instances — whether due to operator error or a vehicle equipped with automated collision avoidance technology — a car can jump the rollers or cause a pileup in the tunnel, resulting in mayhem and damage to all vehicles involved.
Most drivers don’t realize that stepping on their vehicle’s brakes inside a car wash tunnel — even if they’re trying to avoid a collision — makes them responsible for damage that occurs to the vehicles behind them. And even though liability lies with the driver of the vehicle that caused the pileup, this is often difficult to communicate to a distressed customer who has placed confidence in the car wash to get them in and out of the tunnel without incident.
“It’s just not a good experience, especially if law enforcement shows up,” says Jim Mulholland, owner and operator of Florida’s three Busy Bee Car Wash locations. At one point, Mulholland says his car washes were having one pileup per location each week — a dilemma that became costly in a number of ways.
According to Michael Benmosche, insurance provider and national car wash program specialist at McNeil & Company, it made sense to investigate how these pileups were affecting their loss history. “After a rudimentary research project into our insurance company’s claims activity relating to pile up losses in the tunnel, we were able to estimate our out-of-pocket insurance costs to be just under $200,000,” he says. “This does not include the additional expenses operators incur due to indirect costs which could inflate this figure to much higher levels. I guesstimate that this involved about 30 or so individual accidents.”
And even though the at-fault vehicle owner’s auto insurance policy will usually cover the cost of the physical damage, insurance does little to mitigate the losses caused by a negative customer experience. Most car washes depend on word-of-mouth for business, and less-than-glowing reviews create a PR headache, resulting in lost customers and, ultimately, revenue.
STAFF AS A SOLUTION — ONLY A STOPGAP
Many in our industry have utilized staff to avert incidents. For instance, we might have assigned an employee to stand in the tunnel and keep an eye on the process — which, frankly, is as miserable as it sounds. Few of us want to spend several hours at a time in the wet, steamy environment of a car wash tunnel, and our staff does not either.
But many of us quickly learned that, even when an employee was monitoring the tunnel, a collision could happen so quickly that they might not have enough time to turn off the conveyor to prevent further damage. At the busiest car washes, vehicles may only be four to five feet apart and moving at a speed of 1.2 to 1.4 feet per second, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error.
We also tried having someone monitor video footage of the tunnel. While not as physically demanding as being in the tunnel, this is tedious work. It’s almost impossible to ensure that an employee will have their eyes fixed onscreen for multiple hours at a time, without any distractions. There was also no way to know if the employee would be watching the right camera at just the right time to see a potential collision before it happens. And when a car comes off the rollers, you have only a few seconds to act.
To date, we’ve tried it all — and have found human-powered collision prevention methods to be only stopgaps that are neither foolproof nor sustainable over the long term.
Anyone who has spent years operating a high-volume car wash knows the problem of in-tunnel collisions wasn’t going away on its own. Many of us wondered, what if there were a means of mitigating damage caused by in-tunnel collisions, while increasing production, saving money, and improving the overall customer experience? We knew we needed a technology-based solution, but what was it?
Today, a start-to-finish, anti-collision monitoring system is a reality. The system uses motion cameras and computer vision to monitor car wash tunnels, integrating with control systems to stop the conveyor if an issue is detected — whether it be a car hopping the rollers or a customer braking on the track.
The results have been gratifying. Mulholland, quoted earlier, stated that he hasn’t had a single collision at any of his three locations since installing the system. He’s even been able to increase production.
But cutting accident-related costs isn’t even the best reason for installing such equipment. An anti-collision system ensures a positive customer experience, prevents negative word-of-mouth, and reduces the chance for lost customers — and income. Another benefit: installing a full-tunnel collision prevention system increases productivity. “It takes much less time to re-engage the system when all you have to do is remove the obstacle that triggered the conveyor instead of clearing up an accident,” explains Benmosche.
Another benefit of anti-collision equipment is that it gives employees peace-of-mind and improves retention. Such technology also adds an additional layer of safety, alerting staff to a vehicle’s exit from the conveyor. The installed equipment can be designed to comply with the OSHA standard that states, “Conveyor systems shall be equipped with an audible warning signal to be sounded immediately before starting up the conveyor.”
THE PATH FORWARD
When I washed cars as a teenager, never could I have imagined that a full-tunnel collision prevention system would one day use computer vision to monitor car washes, or that I’d play a role in providing the solution to a decades-long problem. And it’s an honor to again rub shoulders with those in the car wash industry — many of whom I got to know over the last “20 years” (my young spirit won’t acknowledge time outside a couple decades). “Overall, it’s a no-brainer,” Mulholland says. “I think this system will be the industry standard moving forward.”
Pete Ness is the CEO of Pingman Tools and NoPileups™ and a 30-year veteran of the software and car wash industries. Pete received a patent in 2010 for a vehicle tracking system he created to manage vehicles coming from multiple lanes into a wash tunnel. He began his software career building aftermarket customizations for DRB System’s Sitewatch POS product, and also worked for IBM. In 2006, Pete became a partner in the Metro Express Car Washes with Bill Martin, and they later sold the company to Mister. You can learn more about his company by visiting www.nopileups.com or calling (208) 789-0405.