Adapting at the Car Wash Keeping Up with Changing Vehicles
By Anthony Analetto
I won’t be impressed with technology until I can download food. Unsure whom this quote is attributed to, but I think we can all relate.
It seems like just yesterday power antennas were posing problems at the wash. Typically, the solution was simple: you turned off the radio, the antenna would retract. One model I remember had to be put in neutral and then turned off for the antenna to retract and roll through the tunnel. These were the full-service days and attendants were trained on what to do when driving various cars onto the conveyor.
The fact is that each year new automotive features will pop up that change the car wash experience.
At the same time, our industry continues to evolve. Most new washes being built are express exterior, or flex-serve operated. The customer stays in the car, sits back and enjoys the ride.
That makes it easy, doesn’t it?
The customer’s in the driver’s seat and responsible to know how their car works, right? Not so fast.
Ultimately, it’s our job to deliver an experience so compelling customers leave with a smile and tell their friends.
And sorry, it doesn’t matter what equipment you run or if you operate a full-serve, flex-serve, or a rollover, it’s inevitable that some unforeseen automotive innovation will someday take you off guard.
The only constant is change. The one solution that’s future-proof is being current on evolving technology and training your staff to make sure customers have a great experience.
A quick and trouble-free passage through your wash will keep your customers happy, keep your line moving, and encourage return business. Technology doesn’t wait; so here are some of the categories you should be aware of to make sure that happens.
AUTOMATIC BRAKING SYSTEMS
This one isn’t new. Introduced over 15 years ago, electronic braking systems of some type are now a standard feature on more than 35 percent of new cars and light trucks and the percentage is increasing. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, auto-braking systems can cut rear-end collisions by 40 percent, as well as reduce the severity of crashes. I read that automakers and regulators agreed to make forward collision prevention systems standard in most cars and light-duty trucks by the 2022 model year.
Here’s the good news, electronic braking systems are easy to operate and easy to accommodate on any conveyor. The hassle is that auto manufacturers are not consistent about how you engage and disengage the systems. Most of the new parking brakes replace pedals or levers with a small switch. They may activate automatically when a car is in park or turned off, or they engage when the car is slowing down in an emergency. And in some cases, carmakers integrate parking brakes with other safety systems. The unintended consequence is that a one-step process may now require a specific progression of steps.
In most cars, such as the 2018 Honda Accord or a Kia Cadenza, all it takes is reminding a customer to deactivate the parking brake by pressing a button on the center console. Sounds simple enough. But in a luxury car like the 2020 Volvo XC90, the procedure can require multiple steps.
Training your attendants to identify vehicles with potential issues and offering a friendly reminder of the process to disengage this safety feature can keep cars flowing smoothly.
A colleague of mine is assembling a one-page guide highlighting models to help customers work around popular auto-braking systems. Send me an e-mail at email@example.com and I’ll forward you a copy. Print it out, laminate it, and train your staff to guide customers to deactivate these systems quickly to avoid potential bottlenecks at your business.
Collision sensors are smart and getting smarter. The only recent story I could find was of a customer’s car giving an alert when a dryer bag descended to dry the windshield. The vehicle didn’t apply the brake or interrupt the wash in any way — it just alerted the customer. It makes sense. A car wash operates well below 5 mph, and there’s typically a person sitting in the driver’s seat. All the same, it’s worth keeping up to date on the technology.
Collision sensors are designed to avoid accidents or at least minimize the damage. Using lasers, radar, or cameras, collision sensors detect hazards inside and outside the vehicle. For anyone who’s tried to squeeze their car into a tight parking space, this safety feature certainly has its everyday value. These sensors usually come with an audible or visual warning or cause the car to slow down or stop automatically.
As with auto-hold braking, each manufacturer provides specific instructions to deactivate the system. One interesting example I heard about is Subaru’s “EyeSight” driver assist technology. This system incorporates lane departure warnings, pre-collision braking, and adaptive cruise control, with separate disable instructions for each feature. Disabling Subaru’s pre-collision is as easy as pressing and holding the button showing two cars crashing into each other. Again, easy to remind a customer to do, provided you’re aware of it.
WINDSHIELD WIPERS PLAY TRICKS
While not a new feature on most vehicles, most rain-sensing windshield wipers use a sensor mounted behind the windshield that sends out an infrared beam of light. It’s reflected from water droplets differently than it would be by dry glass. The change sets the wipers in motion, and the amount of water combined with the speed of the car controls how fast they go.
Back in the ‘90s, several car wash operators were taken off guard with damage claims when primitive automatic windshield wipers, prone to untimely activation, hit the market. Today, with faster computer processors and better sensors, such problems are rare but still happen. Advances in car wash chemistry have also helped to bypass tricky wipers. Closed-cell foam and lubricating soaps designed to help wash materials slide off rather than grab outsmarted technology. That said, it’s best not to have wipers activate during the wash. Training your attendants to be aware of wiper activation, and asking customers to deactivate, especially on some older models, is one more step to keeping technology from disrupting your day.
THE MODERN VEHICLE
Power antennas are, thankfully, a thing of the past. Technology in this area has taken a beautiful turn for the car wash industry. Traditional radio was surpassed by satellite radio, which has already been replaced by streaming services to your phone that play in your car. Each era has brought smaller antennas mainly focused on reducing aerodynamic drag, which makes them incredibly easy to wash around.
Even so, many of us find ourselves retracting wraps for the occasional side-mounted jeep antenna — proof that technological advancements are inescapable, challenges remain, and customer service opportunities exist before the car enters the tunnel.
How the customer feels about your wash and your service is customer-experience success or failure. Train your staff, provide reference sheets, help diffuse a possible tense situation, and wash more cars.
Staying one step ahead of automobile innovation, and your competition, takes planning and research. Invest the time and you’ll reap the rewards.
Good luck, and good washing.
Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.