A Swiss firm claims to have a robotic solution to Abu Dhabi's traffic woes, but is this new frontier of automated parking as rosy as it seems?
Forget parallel parking, the new way to store your car is vertical
In 1961, Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth, arrived in the London borough of Woolwich for the unveiling ceremony of the UK's first ever fully mechanised car parking machine.
To many, this 256-space structure with its state-of-the-art system of pulleys, levers and conveyer belts was seen as a wonder of the modern age. Some even went as far as to predict that its arrival heralded the end of the inconvenience of having to park one's own car.
However, after dutifully cutting the red ribbon, the princess pressed the button to load the first vehicle, which proceeded to get jammed in and had to be levered out. A year later, and after repeated malfunctions, the building was torn down and the project was quietly dropped.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the dream of a fully automatic car park did not die in Woolwich and, more than half a century later, the concept is still considered as a solution to the congestion that blights many urban areas. Thus, numerous manufacturers have drafted similar designs, albeit ones that are more technically advanced.
Of course, Abu Dhabi's city centre parking nightmares are well-documented. Consequently these companies are eyeing up the city as a fertile ground for some big-money contracts.
One of these is Skyline Parking, a Swiss firm, that, according to its CEO, Jürg Iseli, produces the most space-and-time-efficient robotic car parks out there.
After showcasing the company's designs at this year's World Future Energy Summit, Iseli now insists that the powers-that-be have been impressed with his product's scope for solving the city's parking problems. He maintains Skyline's structures, which can be built in either tower or basement form, will be on their way to the UAE capital in the very near future.
Iseli says: "We have had a lot of interest in Abu Dhabi because we offer a unique possibility to reduce the city's parking problems. People told me that the average waiting time to find a parking space is at least 15 minutes and sometimes it's more. This can ruin people's lives."
Of course, this is not hyperbole. Ask most motorists who inhabit the city's Tourist Club Area, and they will readily detail the daily exasperation they face in their quest for a parking spot.
Mawaqif, which began its roll-out in late 2009, may have gone some way to restoring order from the sheer chaos of previous years. Yet, in a city where public transport is still in its infancy and a car is almost a necessity for getting around, supply of parking spaces is still superseded by demand.
Multi-storey car parks seem an obvious solution to this dilemma, yet the high-density of development often precludes the construction of these vast structures.
Iseli claims this is where Skyline could fit in, as his company's product can be built on much smaller plots of land.
"I saw many places which are ideal for [Skyline]," he suggests. "I noticed there are a lot of dilapidated houses and buildings which are no longer habited that could be knocked down. Instead of building offices or apartments, these spaces could be used in the middle of the city to make such automated parking systems."
So, if Skyline does appear, instead of wasting time hunting for a parking space, motorists would instead drive up to the foot of the tower and leave their car on an entry ramp.
Before exiting, they would be reminded by an electronic voice to turn off their engine and apply the handbrake. Their vehicle would then be conveyed onto a high-speed lift, which transports it to a computer-assigned parking space.
Iseli says there are many advantages to this system when compared to both traditional concrete car parks and rival robotic systems: "Ours is the quickest in the world. You can retrieve your car in less than a minute, whereas our competitors take two and a half minutes. Also, it can fit three times as many cars in a certain space as you could in a normal self-park space."
Iseli believes this will free up more room for parks and other green areas in the city. Also, as vehicles will spend less time circling the streets, this will reduce CO2 emissions and other pollutants.
The Review put Iseli's claims to Peter Guest, a UK-based car parking consultant and former president of the British Parking Association. Guest has a familiarity with Abu Dhabi's on-street issues after working with Abu Dhabi Municipality in the early stages of drawing up its Mawaqif scheme.
He said he had not heard of Skyline Parking, but knew of similar ventures, and heeded caution regarding any of these automated parking schemes.
Guest claims: "In the right place and the right circumstances, it's a viable option but I don't think a robotic car park can ever provide the same level of service as a self-park car park. On paper they're perfect, but you put human beings into the equation and it doesn't work quite as well."
Guest believed the reported retrieval times are not entirely accurate. He says: "I have never been able to satisfactorily demonstrate the retrieval times that the robotic car parkers claim are actually valid. And when you start to question them, they become evasive.
"They claim that I go to the front door, I press the button and my car is either despatched or it comes back in 60 to 90 seconds. But what happens if there is a large queue? You get to the point that the fifth or sixth guy is waiting 10 minutes for his car."
And he says there are also other oversights.
"When you look at [automated car park manufacturers'] presentations, the pretty girl drives her car up and gets out and walks away. She never stops to pick up her handbag. She never checks her make-up in the mirror. She never gets things out of the boot. All these activities are taking place on the entry and exit portal and none of these things are recognised in the arithmetic of robotic parkers."
Climatic issues also needed addressing and the UAE's harsh environment could affect its mechanism, claims Guest. "A traditional car park is basically just a block of concrete," he suggests. "And this doesn't need a specialist to maintain. Whereas for a machine, these are provided by specialist companies with bespoke designs.
"But if you have a component that fails and it needs shipping from Switzerland, and it's two weeks before you can get another one, does that mean you won't be getting your car back for two weeks?
"These [automated car parks] things are machines, they have electric motors, tracks, trucks and computerised parts. All of these have to be maintained, serviced and replaced. Some of these parts may only last for four years. Whereas if you look at a self-park car park, it's built to an engineering design for 30 to 50 years.
"Of course, there are some areas of Abu Dhabi where robotic car parks should be a consideration - especially in over-developed parts like Tourist Club Area. But there are other parts where, with a bit of imagination, a normal car park would more than suffice."
So, while robotic car parks could become a regular fixture of Abu Dhabi's skyline in years to come, whether they are the panacea to its chronic parking woes remains to be seen. As the motorists of yesteryear in Woolwich will surely agree.
Hugo Berger is a features writer for The National.