Car-Wash Operators Find RFID Helps Them Clean Up

By Claire Swedberg

EPC RFID tags attached to car windshields quickly identify regular customers and make sure their vehicles get all the services they signed up for.

New Jersey car-wash operator Deptford Shammy Shine is among several companies in the Northeast using an RFID-enabled kiosk provided by Innovative Control Systems (ICS) to allow customers to receive quick, customized, prepaid car washes. Since installing ICS' Auto Sentry system in January 2008, says Steve Bulboff, owner of Deptford Shammy Shine, the average revenue for each car wash has risen by 18 percent, to $7.28, and Bulboff says his customers are happy with the system because they get faster, more automated service.

Innovative Control Systems offers an outdoor, self-service point-of-sale kiosk installed at a car wash's entrance, according to Tom Tuohy, the company's manager of RFID program and credit card processing. ICS began employing RFID technology at its car-wash kiosks about a year and a half ago, he says, to automate the process of car washing. The system, Tuohy claims, can provide greater speed and convenience for customers, as well as "improve cash flow for the operators by offering the ability to manage prepaid clubs." With the prepaid system, customers pay a standard monthly fee regardless of the number of times they utilize the service.

ICS' Auto Sentry RFID-enabled kiosk.

At full-service car washes, Bulboff says, there are typically slow times and bursts of heavy patronage. That can lead to long lines of customers waiting for service. Without an RFID system, those patrons pay for the wash with cash or a credit card, after requesting specific services such as a basic wash or a full service that includes the cleaning of tires and the undercarriage, and the application of wax. The kiosk makes the service-selection process more automatic.

The first time a customer uses the RFID-enabled system, Tuohy says, they enter the car wash's office, present their credit card and set up a monthly payment system, paying a $15 to $60 monthly fee with a specific requested service. In some cases, the initial monthly payment system can also be set up at the kiosk. Customers then receive a sticker to attach to their windshield.

The sticker includes a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID inlay encoded with a unique ID number linked to the customer's name, desired services, payment information and other information. Data regarding a clients' service agreement is stored by the car-wash operator's server using ICS software, while payment information such as credit card numbers is stored by a remote third-party server also running ICS software.

ICS manufactures the kiosk, which includes an RFID interrogator that captures the ID number on the customer's windshield sticker. The Auto Sentry self-serve kiosk includes a touch-screen monitor to assist customers with the sales process and payment by cash or credit card, as well as the RFID reader for car-wash operators requesting the RFID function. The ICS software running on the car wash's server instructs the automated washing system to provide specific features that the vehicle will receive, such as tire shining or car waxing.

"ICS software instructs our real-time car wash controller," Tuohy says, "which tells the equipment in the wash what services are requested, and when they should be turned on." It also transmits the ID number via a cabled connection to the car wash's computer, which can then direct data via an Ethernet connection to the server, where payment information is verified. No matter how many times a customer uses the car wash in any particular month, that person pays the same flat monthly fee.

According to Tuohy, tag placement has been the greatest learning curve. "That depends on the curvature of windows and window tinting," he says. Car washes often advise customers to attach the sticker to the windshield above the rearview mirror, which he says is the optimum location. ICS has also been modifying control read range to ensure there are no cross reads—the capturing of tag ID numbers in a different lane at a separate kiosk—at car washes with multiple lanes.

The labels are designed such that if someone attempts to remove a sticker—to place it on a different car, for instance—the tag is destroyed. "All in all, I'm convinced this [RFID] will be a major technology," Tuohy states, for vehicle access not only to car washes but also to other locations such as residential or other private facilities.

Bulboff agrees. Deptford Shammy Shine currently has two New Jersey locations, one in Deptford Township and another in Pine Hill. As he considers acquiring other automatic car-wash facilities, Bulboff says he expects he'll install Auto Sentry at those sites as well. "I would not own another site without this system," he says. "The customers love it; I love it."

Prior to Deptford Shammy Shine's deployment of the Auto Sentry, customers needed to wait on a long line during high-volume days. "Now," Bulboff says, "they zip right through." And during low-volume times, he notes, revenue continues to come in. "If it rains for two weeks, I still get paid."