AI Self-Driving Cars Can Be Stumped When Trying To Get A Car Wash

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

The other day I went to my local car wash here in California.

After getting my car washed, I was provided with a coupon that said if it rained within the next 48 hours that I could come back for a free car wash.

When I showed this to a colleague visiting here from the East Coast, he was surprised about the coupon and said he had never heard of such a thing being provided to car wash customers.

I was surprised that he was surprised, since this is a pretty customary offer here in California and has been as long as I can remember.

The basis for the coupon is that though we rarely get rain, there’s a paltry 12 inches of rain per year in Los Angeles and it occurs on only about 35 days of the year.

Today, there are places in California that have outlawed doing car washing at your home, so if you want to get a car wash, you’ve got no choice but to go to a professional one.

The basis for the law is that you might tend to waste water when washing your car, and here in parts of California we are water “starved” and required to conserve water. Presumably, a professional car wash is supposed to not only use just the right amount of water but also have provisions to reclaim the water.

Furthermore, another reason that home car washes are discouraged is that the run-off from the car wash, which might include grease and oil and other contaminants, might flow into the sewer system and end-up in polluting our oceans. Professional car washes are supposed to have provisions to trap this or otherwise contend with it.

Car Washing Is Big Business

You might be wondering whether professional car washing is much of a business.

We are all used to seeing car washes on various street corners and often associated with gas stations. Is there a lot of money to be made via a car wash?

Yes, indeed.

In the United States alone, there are an estimated 16,000+ car wash establishments and it is estimated to be a nearly $10 billion-dollar industry, often commanding a hefty profit.

The industry is dominated by smaller mom-and-pop car washes in the sense that the top 50 car washing firms only have about 20% of the total market.

This means that the market is very fragmented.

Competing can be fierce in the car wash business.

Generally, the biggest competitive advantage and the one main success criteria for any car wash is its location. Car washes are considered a location-based business.

Here’s what the mantra of car washes is, and for which people expect and clamor for out of a car wash: Clean, dry, and shiny.

This can be achieved by providing a hands-off automated service operation.

People drive up their cars, usually enter a code to activate the car wash, drive forward into the car wash, remain in their cars as the car gets washed and waxed, and then proceed out of the car wash when finished.

These are the tunnel systems that have become prevalent at most car washes.

There are also the full-service operations, consisting of labor that will drive your car forward for you, and do hand drying and vacuuming the inside of your car.

Most car washes choose one or the other of the two approaches.

Car washing is more than just an idle concept, it’s a big business and one that consumers seem to relish.

Car Washes And Autonomous Cars

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI systems for self-driving cars. One of the “edge” problems involves how AI self-driving cars can handle car washes.

When I refer to an edge problem, it means a type of problem not considered at the core of an otherwise larger problem. In the case of AI self-driving cars, being able to have the AI drive a car is at the core of the driving task.

Having the AI be able to properly navigate and undertake a car wash is admittedly quite a bit further down on the list of priorities.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting problem and one that obviously provides some value to car owners, given the rather sizable nature of the car washing industry.

Booming Business For Car Washing

With the advent of AI self-driving cars, since those are generally going to be new cars, people will likely want to go to car washes.

There are other factors that might further boost the car washing industry as a result of the advent of AI self-driving cars.

One is that it is anticipated that most AI self-driving cars will be turned into ridesharing services.

This makes sense in that if you have a self-driving car that can be driving 24×7, and if you can make money by renting it out, you would likely do so. In that sense, AI self-driving cars will need to look nice, presumably, as a means of appearing attractive to the ridesharing public, and also with the self-driving cars being on-the-go 24×7 there’s heightened chances of them getting dirty or at least dirty looking.

Let’s go ahead and assume therefore that there will be interest in having AI self-driving cars go to the car wash.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, it’s a car and it’s getting washed. End of story.

Not so fast!

First, I’d bet that the times of day that an AI self-driving car will be going to a car wash might differ overall than today’s conventional cars.

Think about that for a moment.

Today’s conventional cars require that a human driver takes the car to the car wash.

In the case of the AI self-driving car, for a true Level 5 self-driving car, which is one that can drive without any human driver on-board the car, the AI self-driving car can be sent to the car wash at the bidding of the car owner.

This can happen any time of the day.

So, the odds are that I’d send my AI self-driving car to the car wash at oddball times, such as say 3:00 a.m. when presumably there is little or no ridesharing opportunities occurring.

This means that car wash owners need to realize that they might see a radical shift of when cars come to their car washes. If you are a labor-based car wash, you might need to reconsider the work shifts of your labor. If you are a fully automated car wash, this change in times might not impact your labor, but it also means that your car wash is going to be in higher use at oddball times, and if it breaks down or needs maintenance, that’s going to happen at oddball times too.

Navigating In A Car Wash Can Be Tricky

Another facet of AI self-driving cars and car washes will be the likelihood that there is no human driver in the self-driving car when it arrives at the car wash.

This means that the car wash itself cannot rely upon a human being to aid in the process of having the car proceed into and undertake the car wash. It’s going to be done entirely with the AI system of the self-driving car.

This lends itself to technological related solutions.

The car wash might be outfitted with Internet of Things (IoT) devices that can readily electronically communicate with the AI self-driving car.

For those car washes that won’t modernize, the AI could try to do the same things that human drivers do today.

This often involves reading signs that describe what to do. The AI could use its sensors to try and figure out where the self-driving car needs to be placed within the washing system. This can be trickier than it seems since if the AI places the self-driving car to the left or right of some obstruction, it could end-up hitting the self-driving car.

Dealing With Dumb Versus Smart Washes

The effort by the AI to contend with a “dumb” car wash is going to be much greater than a modernized “smart” car wash that can electronically use IoT or the equivalent. As such, those car washes that are slow to modernize might find themselves as a disadvantage in terms of attracting owners of AI self-driving cars not wanting to send their cars to the outdated car wash.

This brings up another significant point about the fundamental nature of car washes, which I’ve mentioned earlier is their location.

Will the location of a car wash still matter in a world of AI self-driving cars?

You might say that it won’t be as important anymore. The AI self-driving car can be sent to wherever the owner opts to send it.

It could be that the owner of an AI self-driving car will want to keep it mainly in a geographical area that has the best odds of getting ridesharing. If they are also using it for personal driving purposes, they’d obviously still want the AI self-driving car to come to their home and their workplace. In that sense, there’s some hope for car wash locations of today in that the owners might still want to have the car washed near their home or workplace. But, this is not something quite as guaranteed as it is with today’s conventional cars.

Another facet of car washes will be whether or not they are able to accommodate the physical aspects of an AI self-driving car.

The versions of AI self-driving cars that are being utilized today tend to have a LIDAR system on the top of the car, and have various sensitive cameras, radar, sonic sensors that are embedded just under the skin of the car or sometimes mounted on the exterior of the self-driving car.

If you drive an AI self-driving car into a conventional car wash, the ones that have the various brushes and aren’t touchless, the question will be whether the AI self-driving car will survive the car wash. It could be that the lenses might get scratched or some sensors might be sheared off. A car wash that wants to attract AI self-driving cars will need to make sure it can accommodate any of the physical considerations associated with an AI self-driving car.

This also brings up whether the car wash will also be doing anything inside the AI self-driving car.

I can imagine that car washes will provide a range of specialized services for AI self-driving cars.

This could be a key differentiator as to why an owner sends their self-driving car to car wash X versus car wash Y.

There might even be the use of blockchain for keeping track of car washes undertaken by AI self-driving cars and be used to aid in the electronic payment for the use of the car wash. All in all, there are a myriad of ways in which automation can make the entire life cycle of seeking a car wash to going there to then getting washed, entirely be something that requires no particular human intervention.


The famous song by Rose Royce about car washes relates that you might not ever get rich working at a car wash, but it’s at least better than digging a ditch.

Generally, the already reduced use of labor at car washes is likely to continue, though until there’s an automated solution for cleaning of the interior of a car (a robot?), there’s still some amount of labor required.

In any case, the advent of AI self-driving cars will not do away with the need for car washes and to the contrary would seem to bolster the need for car washes. For those out there that are thinking of investing in a car wash, it seems like a reasonably good bet, but you’ll need to be willing to modernize your car wash for it to be well-aligned with the needs of AI self-driving cars and the human owners of those self-driving cars.

See you at the car wash!

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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