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RFID Helps Car Wash Customers Cruise Through Lines
In Bakersfield, Calif., Cruz Thru Express uses RFID system in its stores to recognize prepaid members and provide automatic washes.
Aug 11, 2008—Car-wash operator Cruz Thru Express is employing an RFID system it designed itself to automate the way it provides services to its customers. The company had been offering patrons various prepaid wash packages that provide unlimited use of its car-washing services on a monthly basis, and had sought a technology able to move customers through the car wash as conveniently and swiftly as possible. After trying both bar-coded labels and license-plate recognition, Cruz Thru Express adopted a system last year using passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags.
Nearly six years ago, the car-wash operator began with just one facility in Bakersfield, Calif. At that site, the company offered the option of unlimited service, typically at a rate of about $30 per month. A customer could prepay for one month, or for repeated months, using a credit card associated with a bar-coded number printed on an adhesive label and attached to the inside of that individual's car door.
"The prepaid offering turned out to be a very popular thing," says Raymond Roselle, a Cruz Thru Express partner. When a car arrived at the store, an attendant would open the door and reach into the vehicle to scan the bar code with a handheld scanner. The car's operator would then proceed through the car-wash tunnel. But Cruz Thru needed a faster and less intrusive method for allowing customers through the wash, Roselle explains.
As the partners acquired four additional stores—larger than the first, and with multiple lanes—they designated one lane specifically for customers with unlimited-use prepaid accounts, and installed cameras facing the front and rear license plates as the cars queued up for an automated wash. The cameras photographed both plates then transmitted the images to the company's back-end system, which compared the photographed license numbers with those stored in the database. If the system discovered a match, it displayed the related information on a screen for the vehicle operator, greeting that person by name; if it did not, then that indicated the vehicle's license plate number had been rejected.
Roselle designed a software system that enabled all of these steps, including capturing the data, searching the database and instructing the gate and wash mechanisms as to which operations to provide for both the bar-code and license plate systems.
However, Roselle says, the license plate recognition system had its shortcomings. Letters on the plate were sometimes blocked—either by dirt, sun glare or reflection—and the system occasionally picked up the license plate of a vehicle behind another car that should have been rejected, opening the gate for that vehicle despite its lack of authorization to be washed. In addition, as customers signed up for the unlimited service, the system depended on an employee manually writing the license plate number on a piece of paper, which office employees then keyed into the computer system, allowing the potential for mistakes.
In the meantime, Roselle says he observed the cost of RFID technology. In the five-year period since the company began offering unlimited-service membership, he notes, the price of RFID labels dropped from approximately $6 apiece to about a dollar. Once he determined the system was affordable, Cruz Thru began purchasing Metalcraft UHF EPC Gen 2 tags. A unique ID number is encoded to each label's RFID chip, and also printed as a bar code on the front of the label, which is attached to the exterior of the upper part of the windshield on the driver's side.
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