Robot parking garages.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
April 1 2004 5:26 PM

The Valet You Don't Have To Tip

The mesmerizing extravagance of mechanized parking.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The new first law of real estate: location, location, robot parking garage. When Michael Bassik, a 25-year-old political consultant, moved to Washington, D.C., he didn't have much time to find an apartment. So, he scoped out a building close to his downtown office. The luxurious Summit Grand Parc—$1,300 a month for an efficiency, $10,000 for the penthouse—bills itself as the residential property closest to the White House, but the building manager didn't sell Bassik on the primo address. "The first thing he shows me is the parking garage," he remembers. "I'm young, I'm on a budget, but I looked at the parking garage, and I said, 'I'll take it.' At the time I didn't have a car."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

The Grand Parc's fully automated, 74-space mechanical carport, which opened along with the building in late 2002, is one of only two in the United States. The landmark garage doesn't look like much of anything from the street. It's easy to miss the entrance, a short driveway on an unremarkable city street. Push the button on your garden-variety garage door opener, and pull into an unexceptional anteroom outfitted with Interior Garage Door No. 1 and Interior Garage Door No. 2. But behind the doors lies a lazy gadget fetishist's delight. Just step away from the vehicle, and leave the driving to the gears and pulleys.

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Drive up to either door, and it rolls up with a creak. The floor is a giant metal turntable that circumscribes a smaller, car-sized metal rectangle. As you inch your car forward, a laser measures the vehicle's height. If it's over 6 feet 6 inches, a sign on the back wall says you're out of luck. Anything over 5,500 pounds doesn't work either, to the dismay of one Grand Parc resident with a hefty Volvo SUV. If the car's not too big or fat, the driver—aided by a low-slung mirror and a sign that says "Drive right" or "Pull forward" based on data from some more lasers and motion sensors—nestles the tires into two grooves that run diagonally along the length of the metal rectangle.

Once the car is settled, you turn off the engine, collect any small children or animals, and leave the vehicle to begin its journey to the center of the Earth. To send it on its way, you wave a keycard device at a small panel right outside the parking chamber, then press the "yes" button when asked if you turned off the engine and collected any small children or animals. The garage door creaks shut, and the turntable rotates 45 degrees, so the front of your car faces the room's back wall. Before the car descends, the metal rectangle does a cute little waggle to remove any rain, sleet, or snow that your ride might have brought from the outside world. Then the car quickly and smoothly disappears. A few seconds after you press your nose against the garage-door windows, your vehicle is out of sight.

The underground vault that stores the car is arranged like a closet outfitted with a pair of giant shoe racks. The cars are stacked in columns four-high along two walls. Similar to a subway, two tracks and one electrified rail carry each vehicle to its steel cubby hole. After the car-bearing pallet drops into the vault, it moves laterally to the closest size-appropriate space. The taller top row is reserved for SUVs, the bottom three for cars. Once the car sidles up to its berth, an empty pallet that's sitting in the space slides out, and the car-bearing pallet slides in. The empty pallet moves up to replace the one that vacated the parking room. The whole process takes about a minute and a half.

Retrieval is similar: Swipe the keycard in front of a screen in the building's coffee bar, the elevator, or the garage itself. No need to remember that you're in row A-4 or the southeast lot; the card knows which space you're in. The pallet drops down from the parking room, switches places with the pallet holding your car, and the car-bearing pallet zooms back up. Once the car is back in the parking anteroom, the turntable rotates, showroom style, until your car is facing the out position. The garage door opens, and you're free to drive away.

SpaceSaver Parking Company, the firm that installed the Grand Parc garage, licenses the technology from a German firm that has many working models in Europe, including a 612-car behemoth in Istanbul. But unlike Europe, America isn't exactly lacking for parking spots, so the garage-o-matic is a rare species in the United States. The usual pedestrian issues are holding back the American robo-parking revolution: dollar signs and permits. Because of the cost of the machinery and maintenance, each space in an automated garage costs $25,000, several thousand dollars more than a spot in a conventional lot. And while there wasn't any holdup in D.C., Jackie Smith, the spokeswoman for SpaceSaver Parking, says that permit problems have delayed or scuttled projects in other cities.

Despite the undeniable Jetsons cachet of the robo-garage, the Summit Grand Parc went automatic only because it had to. A 60-foot-by-106-foot lot behind the building, the only land available for a conventional garage, couldn't hold more than 14 spaces. That wouldn't do for a building with 105 rental units. Eliminating space-hogging ramps and cramming cars closer together than is possible when humans need to exit them allowed an extra 60 spots to be squeezed in.

Plus, the system works for the Grand Parc because the building is both downtown and a block from the D.C. subway, so entrances and exits are minimal—there's no big rush to get in and get out at 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. The parking queue gets really long only if someone retrieves their car from the elevator or coffee bar but forgets to come down and drive it away.

Even the product's name reeks of inessential futurism. The Multiparker MP 710 sounds more like a sidebar to an eighth-grader's "City of the Future" project, or a big-ticket item in the Sharper Image for Municipalities catalog, than an inevitable feature of the coming urban landscape. Like a robotic vacuum cleaner or a remote-control lawn mower, the automated parking garage is an object that adds almost nothing to the original. Except that it's really cool.

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