Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Washing the cars of the future

October 11, 2010

Hummers, hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles appear to be just a few of the new wave cars of the future.

As vehicle manufacturers continue to expand their horizons with more complex products, carwash and car-care owners will face the challenge of caring for and cleaning these new breeds.

Vehicles will continue to evolve and mature, therefore, there are certain factors that carwash and car-care owners must be aware of in order to care for these vehicles successfully.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine spoke with several industry veterans, wash owners and experts regarding what unique features and characteristics the industry should take note of when washing the cars of the future.

The hybrid breed
The electric-gas hybrid has become increasingly popular among celebrities, but has only recently started to trickle into the mass consumer index.

However, considering the environmental and energy concerns of today and the future problems that the world may encounter tomorrow, it’s safe to predict that these vehicles will only continue to grow in numbers.

Therefore, wash owners who haven’t run into this new breed of vehicle will need to brush up on the basics for the inevitable future washings.

According to Mark Thorsby, executive director of the International Carwash Association (ICA), automobile manufacturers are well-aware that people bring their cars to professional carwashes and take this into some account when designing new vehicles.

In recent years especially, the ICA has dedicated a large amount of its time and resources toward working and communicating with vehicle manufacturers to articulate the carwash industry’s concerns and opinions regarding the vehicles that enter professional carwashes.

Potential problems
“The electronic component and water typically don’t mix very well, but there has to be sensitivity and waterproofing,” Thorsby said. They (vehicle manufacturers) have been really good about that.”

However, others in the wash industry have found that the problem lies not in the electrical aspect, but rather how close the hybrid cars are to the ground.

Joel Jurkens, co-owner of the Octopus Car Wash chain, based in Albuquerque, NM, said that at some of his washes, they’re almost to the point of turning hybrids away.

“The hybrids tend to be a problem be-cause they are lower,” Jurkens explained.

According to Jurkens, once the market becomes more saturated with this new vehicle, wash owners will need to begin making necessary adjustments.

Bill Consolo, owner of Chief’s Auto Wash, Cleveland, echoes Jurkens’ sentiments regarding the hybrid vehicle height above the ground.

“I think the standard guard rail height is four and a quarter inches from the ground for the car itself,” Consolo said. “So, if they (hybrids) start going below four and a quarter inches then everybody’s going to start having a problem with those cars.”

One size does not fit all
Vehicles today vary greatly in size, with GM’s Hummers on the large-scale end and BMW’s Mini Coopers representing the petite segment of cars.

Manufacturers offer customers a variety of vehicle sizes to ensure there’s something for everyone, however cleaning those varieties can present a wash owner with difficulties.

Consider the inherent problems associated with a Hummer trying to fit on the same width and size conveyor as a Mini Cooper. Sometimes, one-size does not fit all.

Big and bad
Coy Lindblom, The Carwasher, Mesa, AZ, doesn’t wash Hummers at his locations because they are too big. He doesn’t even offer to have his employees hand wash them off to the side; he just doesn’t touch them.

Lindblom recognizes that his practice does exclude larger vehicles, however he noted that the segment of vehicles he won’t wash is so small that he doesn’t believe his business is missing anything by not servicing them.

Plus, Lindblom said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Hummer and oversized vehicle crowd really decreases in volume because of higher gas prices.

The problem with not adapting and accepting larger vehicles, according to Jurkens, occurs when a customer has a Hummer, his wife’s got a car and his two kids have cars; chances are when the owner turns away the Hummer he loses out on the entire family’s business.

Earl Weiss, owner of Uptown Carwash with four locations in Illinois, has solved his problems with Hummers at his full-service sites by referring them to his self-serve locations.

Weiss noted that if these larger vehicles don’t lose their popularity, but continue to grow in numbers, the carwash industry will have to adapt.

However, he agreed that with the price of gas today, he doesn’t foresee large vehicles becoming a major problem for carwashes.

Conveyor change?
Although Thor-sby agreed that the oversized vehicles tend to be the exception rather than the rule, he admitted that changing the size of the carwash conveyor is a topic that inevitably resurfaces whenever problems with larger vehicles are mentioned.

“It’s one of those things that is always mentioned, but then as soon as it is, you say, ‘Yes, but guys there are roughly 19,000 conveyors already installed — think of the retrofitting,’” Thorsby stated.

Robert Roman; former carwash, express lube and detail shop operator, president of RJR Enterprises, a carwash consulting firm and a member of the ICA, offered another option: the chain-less conveyor.

Roman explained that some operators will continue to accommodate these large, bulky and hard-to-clean vehicles as they have in the past by hand washing them.

“Otherwise,” Roman said, “the best prospect for handling them in a full-service or exterior-only carwash environment will be the continued development and adaptation of the chain-less conveyor.”

Computers to the rescue
According to Roman, the larger vehicles will also continue to be a problem for touch-free in-bay automatics that do not utilize a system capable of profiling the entire vehicle.

“We’ll see continuing research and development in the area of computer imaging and the ability of the equipment to understand the difference between when a Mazda Miata enters the bay followed by a Chrysler 300,” Thorsby said.

“They are two separate sized and shaped vehicles and the equipment will be able to adjust itself in the washing process, so the two vehicles are washed differently based on their size and shape,” Thorsby explained.

Thorsby noted that he’s already seen some in-bay automatic manufacturers selling this kind of equipment.

The paint predicament
In early December 2005, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. sent out a press release claiming that it had invented a new clear paint, “Scratch Guard Coat,” that repairs scratches on painted car surfaces.

The main concern arose when they indicated that many of those scratches supposedly resulted from carwash equipment.

The release put carwashers in a tough spot; first many were excited about the concept of paint that can potentially “heal” itself, but many were also disturbed by the wording in the release that implicated carwashes as a source of damage.

Regardless of the negative light the campaign may have placed carwashes in, the new product is a sign that car manufacturers are focusing more on vehicles’ outer-surface than ever before; a fact that may be good and bad for carwash facilities.

According to Roman, the clear-coat paint systems used on many cars today can’t be buffed nearly as often or as aggressively as the old acrylic enamels or lacquer paint surfaces, but they can still be buffed and waxed.

Lindblom noted that the wash industry has definitely had to adapt as the new clear coats replaced the older paints. He predicts that carwashers will have to adapt again if new vehicles continue to see evolving paint mechanisms such as Nissan’s.

Maintenance-free?
As Thorsby pointed out, the Nissan “self-healing” paint isn’t something that is being applied to a mass number of vehicles. He explained that according to his resources, Nissan is only applying the paint to one vehicle model.

“If Nissan’s new ‘self-healing’ paint system doesn’t perform as promised, I believe that it may play out in the same manner that paint sealants and similar products have played out in the industry,” Roman stated.

Roman explained that consumers may initially accept the product, but later there may be a period of slower sales when consumers reject the idea of paying high prices for an aftermarket product that doesn’t work as well as promised.

“However, if the coating does work effectively for say, four to six years without rejuvenation or special maintenance, this could deliver a serious blow to the volume of any operator that provides express detailing services or reconditioning,” Roman said.

This could lead many carwash owners to face similar problems that the lube industry has recently encountered, with the automobile industry’s continued push to make motor vehicles more maintenance-free, Roman stated.

The customer curse
Almost every carwash owner has a personal story or knows an owner who has a story about the dilemmas associated with vehicle security devices or keyless entry systems.

“Many times there is a problem with the ignition switch, as far as trying to get the vehicle started,” Jurkens stated. “It seems like we (the carwash staff) have to go over and get the owner of the vehicle to help start the car.”

Operators also face problems with customers and workers locking keys inside the car and facing difficulties when trying to get them out.

Jurkens said that the trend in the industry seems to be to keep the customer in the vehicle.

“I think that operators are just sick and tired of dealing with care and custody of the vehicle,” Jurkens said.

Drive time
In 2005, the full-service carwash industry saw several incidents where employees handling customers’ vehicles lost control of the car and destroyed property and injured other people.

Like Jurkens, Weiss followed the industry trend; at all his current full-serve locations the customer stays in the vehicle.

Weiss noted that with newer vehicles, many have to reach a speed of 10 miles an hour or more for the doors to lock automatically.

“The most effective way to deal with this issue is to keep the customer in the car during the wash process,” Roman said. “Keeping the customer inside the vehicle until it reaches the end or a designated detail area will help minimize this risk.”

However, the next potential problem is: what happens when the customer inside the vehicle has a problem controlling the car?

In late December 2005, a carwash worker was accidentally killed onsite by a customer who lost control of his vehicle and hit the gas instead of the brakes, crushing the employee.

Therefore, wash owners who decide to let customers stay inside their vehicles need to make sure their employees are especially wary of vehicles exiting the conveyor.

Keeping customers inside their cars may minimize the risk of keyless entry and security system lock-outs, but may increase the chances that customers will lose control of the vehicle.

Accessory overload
Accessories have been a sore subject for many wash operators of both yesterday and today, and will most likely continue to be one tomorrow.

However, there are ways for wash owners to lessen the pain when it comes to washing over-accessorized vehicles.

Weiss disclaims any responsibility for damaged accessories that are non-factory applied. According to him, he hasn’t had many problems with factory-applied accessories at all.

During his years as an operator, Roman also said he experienced relatively few damage claims involving factory-installed accessories like bug shields, wind deflectors and spoilers.

Consolo explained that he thinks aftermarket accessories are being made cheaper.

In order to cope with the less sturdy accessories wash owners may encounter, Consolo said that owners are going to need to invest in equipment that is gentler on vehicles.

Future problems can also be headed off, Consolo stated, by letting customers know about potential problems on their vehicles prior to washing them.

Don’t fear the future
It’s inevitable; cars are becoming more hi-tech and automated and are morphing into new breeds.

While these new innovations may cause some initial problems, wash owners always have been, and will continue to be quick to recognize and adapt to these challenges.

Furthermore, with the growing re-sources and information provided by industry associations working their hardest to keep operators in the know, owners shouldn’t fear the new breeds of vehicles entering their bays.

According to Jurkens, “It all boils down to the automobile manufacturers. They’re going to keep making these animals that are making washing more difficult. You’ve just got be on the offensive.”

In order to care for the cars of the future, wash owners need only remember a few things: don’t reject the cars of the future — learn about them, adapt as much as possible, keep the customer informed, and never get too comfortable in this industry, because as soon as you do, it will change.


A special thanks to Kate Carr, Associate Editor for assisting with this article.