Failures show why we're not ready for robotic carparks

The future of car parking, once the kinks have been ironed out.
The future of car parking, once the kinks have been ironed out.  

It seemed like the perfect night life accessory for the South Beach, Miami set – an automated robotic parking garage where trendy clubgoers could park their Porsches with a futuristic touch of a button.

Forget hiding your GPS and favourite Fendi sunglasses from a valet who might ding your new alloy wheels; this garage would park cars itself.

Instead, malfunctions lasted for hours. Cars were smashed, and faulty machinery fell several stories to the ground. Sometimes vehicles were stuck for so long that garage operators had to pay for customers' taxis.

An automated parking garage on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, where cars were smashed, and faulty machinery fell several ...
An automated parking garage on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, where cars were smashed, and faulty machinery fell several stories to the ground.  Photo: Ryan Stone

"It was clear that the garage was not ready to be open to the public," said Russell Galbut, managing principal at Crescent Heights, the property developer, which has sued two manufacturers over the botched garage.

Major malfunction

While engineers aim to perfect self-driving cars, they still have a lot of work to do on another element of the ideal commute of the future: robotic parking. Designs differ, but most consist of a combination of automated ramps, slabs, lifts and shelves, using a computerised system that parks and delivers a car like a high-tech vending machine.

It was clear that the garage was not ready to be open to the public.

Russell Galbut

But the garage on Collins Avenue is one of two cutting-edge parking projects in South Florida that ended in spectacular debacles. At a luxury residential high-rise in downtown Miami, a $US16 million ($22 million) robotic garage plagued with delays finally closed, leaving tenants paying $US28 a day to park elsewhere. The police were called to keep order at the building, BrickellHouse.

Cars inside a robotic parking garage at a residential building in Brooklyn.
Cars inside a robotic parking garage at a residential building in Brooklyn. Photo: Yeong-Ung Yang

And around the US, other attempts at self-parking garages have been caught in embarrassing software and hardware mishaps at a time when dozens of projects have been proposed or are underway.

What's the damage

High-tech parking is common in Europe, in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, where space limitations made it a priority. But in the US, errors were common because drivers were unaccustomed to the technology, and some garage builders tried to duplicate foreign successes without understanding how differences in design can make or break a project.

Some smaller garages work fine, but others designed to whiz automobiles away and return them in three minutes or less are bringing back the wrong cars, trapping vehicles, taking what feels like forever and even damaging automobiles.

“Americans are not used to this method of parking,” said Ryan Astrup, whose New Jersey company, Park Plus, is involved ...
“Americans are not used to this method of parking,” said Ryan Astrup, whose New Jersey company, Park Plus, is involved in automated parking garages. Photo: Yeong-Ung Yang

Local laws and trends in green building are now demanding that developers find more efficient ways to use space, including parking. But it can be more easily mandated than achieved. The company that built the two unsuccessful South Florida garages, Boomerang Systems, declared bankruptcy this summer and last week announced that the company would voluntarily liquidate its assets.

After the fall

In Hoboken, New Jersey, where the country's first robotic garage was built more than a decade ago, a Cadillac plunged six stories, and a Jeep dropped four stories a year later. One of the country's largest automated parking garages, in Maryland, is closed after an employee fell to his death in an accident that led to more than $US1 million in required repairs.

"On the weekends, it usually takes 45 minutes to an hour to get your car," said Aldo Ferri, 36, an Audi driver who rents an apartment at Brickell House, a building that looks out on Biscayne Bay. "You can only have X number of cars delivered versus requested. If the numbers go high, the system goes crazy."

A car damaged in a shaft at a Miami Beach parking garage.
A car damaged in a shaft at a Miami Beach parking garage. Photo: Crescent Heights

In Miami, where public transportation is notoriously lacking, too many people were trying to leave for work at the same time.

Squashed and dangling

After months of problems, the condominium association was forced to hire old-fashioned valets to park cars for people who needed them quickly. This month, the feud with the garage builder deteriorated further and access to the garage was blocked off.

"I'm going to move out," Ferri said.

The BrickellHouse condo association declined to comment. The building developer, Harvey Hernandez, and Boomerang Services – who have pending litigation against each other on financing matters – did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Boomerang's website, the company has seven robotic parking projects. The website does not mention the Collins Avenue garage, built for 139 cars, which has sat unused for five years. Photographs provided by the developer, who successfully sued Boomerang, show cars dangling off platforms and squashed in shafts.

The developer hired another robotic parking company, Park Plus, to make fixes, but in late October that attempt landed in court as well; the dispute is not yet resolved.

Black eyed industry

Despite the setbacks, parking industry experts say automated parking is here to stay.

"It's unfortunate that you've got projects that haven't happened the way that they were supposed to, because it gives the entire industry a black eye when it shouldn't, because automated parking is a wave of parking for the future," said Christopher Alan, whose company, Auto Parkit, has seven such garages and 20 more under construction, mostly in California. "You don't have a lot companies that are doing this. A few do it very well."

Alan said his key to success was designing simpler technology, which allowed him to park 200 cars where a traditional garage can fit 100.

Ironing out the kinks

Another South Florida developer, Gil Dezer, said his new high-rise in Sunny Isles, the Porsche Design Tower, would feature an automated garage that would deliver a car right to a resident's door. He called it the Dezervator.

"Ours is an elevator," Dezer said. "An elevator goes up and down. We know how to use an elevator."

Casey Jones, a former chairman of the International Parking Institute, said industry leaders believe the kinks will be worked out. They have to: Developers cannot keep paving over land for people to park their cars on, he said.

"The technology is there," Jones said. "We have elevators, and the concept is the same. Elevators move people. In robotic parking, those elevators move cars. Whether it's now or two or three decades from now, we need to continue to pursue it and hone that innovation."

NEW YORK TIMES