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Ending Car Wash Accidents with Full-Tunnel Collision Prevention

by:Pete Ness

She later learned the SUV driver in front of her had hit the brakes, causing his vehicle to hop off the conveyor and come to a stop. Martinez’s car, being propelled by the car wash, rammed into his multiple times. Both drivers were uninjured, but the man who caused the incident immediately sped away. Next, the car wash attendant informed Martinez the business wasn't technically responsible for damages, leaving her with a damaged bumper that would cost $1,000 to repair — due to an accident that wasn't even her fault.

Martinez is not alone. Carwash pileups are happening more often than ever, but, like many patrons, she was unaware such accidents occurred. However, the carwash industry is painfully aware of the problem. And while they do their best to avoid in-tunnel collisions, they face two major challenges.

Why Pileups are On The Rise

Many carwashes now offer unlimited plans, meaning their customers can pay a monthly fee to wash their car as often as they like. These plans have become more popular in recent years, and that means more drivers are washing their cars more often than ever before. Increasing demand, in turn, increases the probability of in-tunnel pileups caused by driver error.

Driver error is the most common cause of pileups at conveyor-driven car washes. In this scenario, a driver accidentally hits the brakes or shifts out of neutral, which causes their vehicle to hop the roller. If the car stops moving and the conveyor isn't stopped, vehicles collide into each other and create a pileup similar to the one described at the outset.

Self-driving technology also contributes to in-tunnel collisions. Some new cars are programmed to avoid accidents by applying the brakes when a threat is detected. During a car wash, this technology can be problematic because spinning brushes and other equipment may be mistaken as threats. In this scenario, the technology detects the threat, applies the brakes, and the vehicle hops the roller, which causes a pileup. Auto manufacturers are aware of this problem, and some publish instructions for carwash mode, but most drivers are unaware of the risk so they usually don’t know to look for these instructions in the first place.

The Impact of In-Tunnel Pileups

Regardless of the cause, car wash pileups create havoc beyond physical damage or repair costs. Not only are victims usually liable for damages, an auto collision can be traumatic. Those factors often make for a less-than-favorable carwash experience. According to Understanding Customers by Ruby Newell-Legner, 91 per cent of customers never return to a business after a negative experience. And the impact does not stop there. Research from American Express found Canadians tell an average of 16 people about a bad experience with a business. And when shared via social media, the reach can extend much further — to thousands of social media users.

Customers regularly post their experiences with businesses on sites like Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter. Negative reviews drive potential customers away and can deteriorate even the strongest of brands. Stories about carwash pileups rarely go viral, but when they do, they can end up in the news — like the Amber Martinez story. In one case, the carwash paid for the victim’s damages — even though they had no legal obligation to do so. It was easier for the business to pay than suffer the bad publicity.

But there’s more. According to Michael Benmosche, National Car Wash Insurance Program Manager at McNeil and Company, in-tunnel collisions often cost operators four times as much as direct damage costs. Indirect costs include time spend by staff dealing with collisions, lost production due to a stopped conveyor, loss of business caused by a negative public image, and the cost of training new employees.

Carwash pileups increase new employee training costs because accidents decrease morale and can contribute to a high turnover rate. For starters, if an accident occurs on an employee’s watch, they may feel responsible. Secondly, interacting with unhappy customers can be taxing. For a pileup victim, being informed the carwash isn’t covering damage costs may cause stress and frustration — and stressed, frustrated customers aren’t always known to be kind. If pileups happen regularly at a carwash, being treated poorly by customers may be enough to make any employee want to find a new job.

Preventing Car Wash Pileups

Motivated by the significant negative impact of in-tunnel accidents, operators have historically addressed the problem in several ways. Some have an employee monitor the tunnel from inside; others increase the space between cars or decrease conveyor speeds. But these are merely stopgaps. After enough time standing and staring, an employee in such a distracting environment is bound to make a mistake. And slowing production hurts the bottom line. With these dilemmas in mind, carwash owners have been desperate for a better approach to preventing collisions.

Rising demand for an effective, permanent solution is bringing forth a new class of carwash technology: full-tunnel collision prevention. This kind of system uses computer vision and machine learning to prevent accidents and improve operational capacity. It’s an automated solution to the pileup problem that ultimately helps operators increase profitability. The system integrates with tunnel controllers and monitors the operation through cameras most carwashes already have installed. If the computer vision detects a stopped car, it stops the conveyor faster than humanly possible and prevents an accident from occurring.

In this case, stopping the conveyor helps operators increase production. It may seem counterintuitive, but full-tunnel accident prevention drastically cuts downtime related to incidents. Preventing an accident means spending a few minutes to reposition a vehicle on the conveyor instead of accruing the indirect costs related to pileups.

Knowing that reliable machinery is monitoring the tunnel also makes operators more confident, allowing them to increase production and decrease downtime. They are able to operate at faster chain speeds with less space between cars— adjustments that result in more cars per hour, and more peace of mind for both carwash operators and drivers.

While the pileup problem has been growing due to increasing customer demand and auto-braking vehicles, full-tunnel collision prevention systems could very well be the answer. Such a solution eliminates the need to slow production or rely on humans to monitor the tunnel. It effectively avoids pileups and allows operators to increase production and decrease downtime. Thanks to the machine learning and computer vision offered by reliable accident-prevention systems, the direct and indirect damages caused by in-tunnel collisions may soon be a thing of the past.

 

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FEATURE STORY

It was a big day for Amber Martinez. She was to appear as the maid of honor in her sister-in-law’s wedding. While running a few last minute errands, she decided to roll through the carwash. Partway through the tunnel, Amber felt a bump, then another bump and thought, “Oh, no! Am I getting hit?”

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