Every car wash operator should be aware of the major technological changes in the past decade as sophisticated technology has found it’s way into the market place. The most noticeable leap in technology has been in pay stations, entry stations, automated attendants, automated tellers, auto sentries, and wizards of water. No matter the name you call it by nothing changes the fact that sitting in front of every automatic car wash is a sophisticated piece of equipment that gives wash customers the ability to select a wash package and make payment. Although, the level of interaction, customization, and functionality varies between make, model, and manufacturer of the equipment it is important to weigh your options wisely when making a purchasing decision.

A Brief History of Pay Station Technology

Early entry stations resembled self service meter boxes that offered a single flavor of car wash. It was not until later years that entry stations offered multiple tiered wash packages, bill acceptance, and promotional paper coupons read by a bill acceptor. Over the years manufacturers continued to take advantage of available technology and build upon a growing demand for more advanced automated entry solutions. Pay at the pump was the first major victory for wash equipment manufacturers of entry stations. With both the interest and funding of the petroleum industry, hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into research and development. This surge is responsible for the growth of many major wash equipment manufacturers of today.

Advances in Pay Station Technology

It only takes a quick tour around the trade show floor put on by the car wash associations to see how much things have changed over the years. Entry stations now talk to customers, make recommendations of other services to buy, give a free car washes on a customers birthday, and speaks multiple languages. Pay stations tell you when they have run out of coins in the hopper, when to empty the bill validator, and if there is a known malfunction you can get a text message on your cell phone with an alert code. These features are all available in the latest and greatest entry stations, but you have to pay extra for the bells and whistles. Below are a handful of the most influential applications of new technology in pay stations over the past few years.

Touch Screens:
Humans process information with all of their senses but, 80% of that information is processed visually. The optical nerve is physically connected to the brain and is 25 times faster than the auditory nerve. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, it should be no surprise that animated touch screens allow for a faster and less confusing customer experience. The ATM industry has spent millions of dollars on user design interface and improving touch screen technology. Wash equipment manufacturers are reaping the benefits from those advances in technology. Entry units that take advantage of touch screens are able consolidate the interface and create a greater sense of simplicity. Since most entry stations are filled with LCD screens, buttons, coin and card slots, and decals filled with static instructions it is no wonder consumers are confused by older style entry units. The face of the entry unit now consists of a large color screen complete with graphics, instructions, pricing, and animated instructional graphics. In some instances wash customers get to interact with former beauty pageant queens as they choose their wash, upgrade their wash package, and pay for the wash. Touch screens won’t be for everybody due to the added cost to the entry system itself, but just like high definition televisions, the cost will drop as technology improves and they will soon become common place.

Looking Forward:
Touch screens will be the primary method for all consumer interactions in the future because of the scalability and cost savings to develop on a virtual platform. Imagine how easy it is for a manufacturer to move a button or add a button to a machine when it isn’t a physical component that requires machining and additional parts. Software programmers just make a change in the code and upload the changes to the entry station via a high-speed Internet connection. In a surprising move, this past year Innovative Control Systems developed the first touch screen based pay stations for self service bays. Personalization, promotional advertisements, and customized digital pricing menus will soon be common place as the technology continues to improve and become more affordable. Wash-wide use of this technology is just around the corner for those that can foot the bill.

Voice Prompting:
If humans process 80% of their information visually, that leaves the other 20% to what they hear. Studies on human behavior has concluded that humans are prone to confusion which leads to inaction when given only written instruction. The addition of voice prompting makes a consumer five times more likely to follow instructions as they navigate an unfamiliar interface. Entry stations, gift card dispensing machines, and vending machines are adding voice-instruction to great effect as it reduces the number of confused customers. By providing multiple sensory inputs consumer confidence rises as they make decisions about their purchase. A customer with high confidence is a happy customer which according to market research, happy customers spend more money.

Entry Station Up-selling:
Whether by voice prompt, text prompt, or interactive video, the latest in entry stations will do a lot more than provide wash packages for consumers to choose from. Based on the selection made by the consumer, pre-programmed add-on’s are presented to the customer for effective up sales. Wash owners across North America have had a lot of success with entry stations that up-sell their customers on additional services such as RainX applications or hot tire scrubs. Up-selling has been made hugely successful with advanced entry stations that feature touch screens and voice prompting. These offerings are popular with express exterior washes and unattended in-bay automatics.

High Speed Internet Credit Card Clearing:
In a service industry such as car washing, time is money. A handful of the new entry stations are able to process credit cards via a high speed Internet connection. By having the capability to process and clear credit card transactions in in three seconds or less has multiple benefits. Not only is throughput of the wash increased, but credit card fraud is decreased because the entire transaction is cleared before the service is provided. This is unlike existing dial-up credit card systems widely in-use that batch their transactions throughout the day. Thousands of car wash owners every year have to make a difficult decision of whether or not to purchase a costly entry station replacement in order to take advantage of high-speed credit card clearing. In fact, thousands of existing entry stations in use do not accept any credit cards as a valid form of payment. The exciting news is that even entry stations that are decades old can take advantage of high speed credit card clearing as well as eliminate the additional cost of phone lines that run to each of their entry stations. There are companies in the car washing industry that give car wash operators the ability to retrofit their existing entry stations with high speed credit card acceptance. An added benefit is that the same retrofit solution can be applied throughout the entire wash. This way a single high-speed Internet connection can provide credit card clearing for every service at the wash. Imagine having the ability to accept credit cards with a single merchant account throughout your wash location. Many of these retrofit solutions offer promotional fleet cards and gift cards that make use of the same reader used to accept credit cards in the entry stations.

Remote Access and Troubleshooting:
High-speed Internet capabilities and computer software are not just for clearing credit cards. Manufacturers and car wash service technicians now have the ability to remotely access and diagnose issues with some of the latest entry stations. Imagine not having to wait for a service technician to drive out to diagnose an issue! Like all technology, as it improves so does the speed in which problems can be diagnosed and addressed. For wash owners with older entry stations, retrofit solutions do exist for adding remote access functionality.

Remote Reporting and Administration:
Like most things, entry stations are becoming more reliant upon computer systems and software to operate. A primary advantage to the car wash owner is that the same systems that power their touch screens and clear credit cards also gives wash owners and operators the ability to know at any given time how much business has gone through the wash. By giving owners and operators this level of accountability, it reduces the risk of employees getting away with theft. Because if you know how much money should be in the deposit, if comes up short you know you have an employee problem, not a machine problem. Wash operators around the world are now finding how much time and money they save by catching a problem before it becomes a major problem. High-end entry stations now come equipped with remote reporting and paging as a standard feature. The good news for those wash operators that have older equipment is that there are also retrofit solutions that can give them remote reporting and accountability without having to lay down the big bucks for a brand new entry station. For example, Imagine Innovations has a product line called Wash Remote that can tie into just about any service at the wash and provide owners with remote reporting and alert wash owners when something goes wrong or even when chemical levels are low. Entry stations of all kinds, vending machines, changers, self service meters and pumps, vacuums, and any other device that accepts payment can all be tied into one remote monitoring network. This will ensure things are running smoothly, money is making it into the bank, bill changers are full of coins, and soap and chemical does not run out before a busy holiday weekend because somebody forgot to check the soap levels.

Proximity Tag Technology:
Proximity technology has been making a big splash in the gated entry and express wash community. Entry stations are set up to read a specialized proximity tag that is adhered to the inside window of a vehicle. The entry station reports the wash selection, time and date stamp of the vehicle and software in the back room authorizes the transaction. The actual promotional value of the proximity technology varies depending on the software and the application. Most car washes offer an unlimited wash pass for a monthly subscription will use proximity tags to automatically bill a credit card on file. Other operators use the proximity tags or proximity keyfobs to track commercial account usage and will send businesses an invoice for all wash activity from the previous month. Proximity technology is still very expensive all things considered. Since there are a variety applications for proximity technology at the car wash each business will have to determine how cost effective it will be for their operation. Proximity and RFID is a fast-growing industry that will in time be a key contributor to streamlining car washes around the globe.

Making the Right Choice for Your Business

Just like personal computers, the moment you buy a new entry station for your car wash operation it will no longer be the latest and greatest. Advancements in entry technology are evolving so quickly that to stay on top would cost a fortune. Thankfully, as mentioned earlier most of the recent software-based entry stations can all be updated remotely to take advantage of the latest programming and feature sets. Many of the wash industry manufacturers make a point of offering existing customers upgrade options when new hardware or software is available. For existing businesses considering an entry system upgrade for their location consider what their goals are with the upgrade. Many retrofit solutions are available on the market to help customers defray the cost of buying an entirely new entry systems. For customers that are building new washes it really is an exciting time to be making a purchasing decision with so many amazing entry stations available today. So consider your purchase wisely and remember that you will never regret buying a quality product as long as you can justify the return on investment.