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RFID at the Car Wash

An RFID-based payment system is helping streamline the car-wash process, and increase customer loyalty.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 25, 2007American drivers love to pamper their cars, but they don't like waiting in line at the car wash. Innovative Control Systems, a company that develops car-care technologies, has introduced an RFID-based automatic payment system designed to help streamline drivers' visits to the car wash and improve customer satisfaction. This system can also be used as part of a customer-loyalty program.

ICS partnered with RCD Technology, an RFID tag manufacturing startup based in Quakertown, Pa., to design an RFID tag able to fit ICS's requirements. The tag had to be low-cost, highly reliable and mountable on the inside of a car windshield.It also had to have a small profile so it would not create a visual hindrance for a driver. It also needed to be tamper-proof to prohibit a thief from removing it from the car to which it was issued.

"Initially, the tag size was about the size of a credit card," says Mike Ruiz, ICS' chief information officer. But RCD was able to reduce the size of the tag down to its current 7 by 1.2 centimeters—small enough to fit on the part of a car's windshield that the driver's rear-view mirror blocks from view. If someone removes the tag after it has been placed on a windshield, its strong adhesive forces the antenna to detach from the chip, making the tag unreadable. Printed on the tag is the ICS logo and a unique ID number, along with a bar-code version of the ID number, also encoded to the tag. This enables car-wash attendants two additional means of collecting the tag ID, should their RFID readers go down for maintenance or if there is some other reason they can't be read.

The ICS tags are compliant with the UHF EPC Gen 2 and ISO 18000-6C air-interface protocols. They contain the Higgs Gen 2 chip made by Alien Technology, as well as RCD antennas. RCD employs a proprietary method for creating its tag antennas, which involves the use of conductive inks and electroplating. The company says this provides a low-cost platform for customizing its antenna designs. It specializes in custom RFID applications such as the one developed by ICS.

ICS is offering the RFID system as a value-added service to its customers in the car-wash industry as part of the ICS Auto-Sentry touch-screen payment terminal. This terminal can process cash payments (it dispenses change), as well as payments made with magnetic-strip credit or debit cards. As such, it can be deployed at unattended car-wash stations, where customers drive up to payment kiosks, select the type of wash they want, pay and follow instructions to enter the automated car-wash tunnel.

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