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Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage

New automated garage, the kind of the future, will open without help from valets and with fewer hiccups in the next four to six months. "There's a price to pay for being the first," developer says.

Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage Debugging Santa Monica's First Robo Garage

Meet the parking garage perfectly suited for an episode of The Jetsons.

Below the UCLA Santa Monica Outpatient Surgery Center, the machines in a new automated garage do all of the work for you, but watch out: software glitches could hold your car hostage.

After opening the $8-million garage to the surgery center's employees and to the public in the spring of last year, developers say they are still debugging new control software for two robotic arms that grab, store and return vehicles to docking bays without human assistance.

The two 8,000-pound cranes, which share a fairly tight aisle, do not always communicate properly when there are as many as six cars that need to be parked simultaneously, and that's causing delays.

"That's complicated... to not crash into each other. One crane should move out of the way," said Randy Miller, president of Nautilus Group, which built the garage. "We're refining the logic."

Miller said his is the first robotic garage operating the West Coast.

"There's a price to pay for being the first," he said.

In Los Angeles, others are planned at West Hollywood City Hall and at an affordable housing project in Chinatown. Miller said he intends to build more in Santa Monica, including at a proposed mixed-use housing and commercial project at Sixth Street and Colorado Avenue.

The Santa Monica garage located directly across from the UCLA hospital on 16th Street might not be operating to its full potential yet—but there are still benefits.

When the equipment is working properly, a car can be retrieved in less than two minutes. Plus, there is virtually no threat of thefts, and you will never roam the garage in a panic, frantically clicking your key-less entry remote when you've forgotten where exactly you parked.

"It breaks down sometimes, but when it's working it's really great," said Laurin Eimers, a registered nurse who works at the outpatient center. She said her car has been held up a few times by the technical malfunctions.

Here's how the garage works: a driver pulls in to one of the six bays and exits his car. After he checks in at a kiosk, a movable platform takes the car from the entry bay to a crane, which lowers it head-first into one of 250 parking slots on six vertically-stacked levels.

The center's employees like Eimers who pay monthly rates to park, swipe their drivers' licenses to identify their cars. The public uses debit or credit cards. When the driver returns to retrieve her car, she swipes the same card, and the crane picks it up, spins it 180 degrees and places it back in the entry bay.

"It's going to take quite a while to get people acclimated to working with this type of system," said Nautilus' garage operation manager Shaun Harris.

Harris' job is to figure out how to make the system more user-friendly before it fully opens to the public in the next four to six months.

"It's supposed to be completely autonomous," he said. But "when they come in, people don't have any idea what they're looking at."

Currently, valets (human ones) assist drivers.

"We want it to be like an elevator," Miller said. "Every once in a while it will break down, but no one is ever concerned about when they get in."

 

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