Rise of the Machines: Robot Garage Will Be North America’s Largest


(Credit: Amanda Cohen)

Perry Finkelman at times sounds like he’s describing something from a science-fiction movie. The CEO of Automotion Parking Systems talks of designing machines, manipulating machines—even machines that send text messages. It’s not Rise of the Machines he speaks of … not exactly. But the technology that will control the 697-car underground parking garage that Automation plans to build beneath Willoughby Square Park in Downtown Brooklyn very much relies on them. A human driver parks the car on a pallet, and then computer-operated machines take over: an automated touch screen provides a simple set of directions, and lasers make sure the vehicle is positioned correctly, running a series of safety checks, before computer-programmed robotics swirl the vehicle to a snug underground resting place.

The city tapped Automotion and its partners to build the $35 million garage following a grueling three-year RFP process. American Development Group, Mr. Finkelman’s other company, will serve as project manager of the parking lot and the roughly $5 million dollar park above it, which is slated to become the epicenter of a $2.5 billion mixed-use cultural center. Mr. Finkelman shared details with The Commercial Observer on what he claims will be the largest automated parking garage of its kind in North America, the technology behind it, his push to make it even greener and the park that will sit above it.   

The Commercial Observer: What gave you the edge on the RFP? 

Mr. Finkelman: When this RFP came up, everyone was looking at conventional parking to go underground. There’s just no way that it could be properly designed and handle what their target number was, of almost 700 vehicles. We were able to get the exact amount they were looking for in less space—almost three times the amount of parking in the space that was proposed by other vendors—so there was a significant advantage to how we looked at it. I don’t know the exact numbers, but the whispered number of the next successful bidder was somewhere between $20 million and $30 million more.

Who designed this, and where did the concept come from? 

The designer is Solomon Rosenzweig with SRPE, and they are the structural engineers for the project. I was out to dinner with our structural engineers, and we were talking about how to go about designing this, and what I wanted to do was create some sort of trapezoid design so we could deal with the construction costs—not underpinning as much and using the natural contours of the soil to hold back the soil pressures, as a tool to be competitive. That genesis of those drawings, which were actually on the back of a napkin, is what we ended up designing.

This is a technology and construction methodology that has not been used in the U.S. but has been used in Europe—a whole concept of making something extremely environmentally friendly. We figured out that we would be saving 17,000 gallons of gas a year just from [not] driving around the ramps in a conventional garage. That’s a staggering amount of money and fuel—and a waste that we won’t have.

Why aren’t other parking companies catching on? 

Quite frankly, I don’t know why. It’s available to them—Automotion sells to everybody. So it’s available. Automotion would be selling to American Development or anyone else, even on multiple bidders—but no one did approach Automotion.

Do other firms have this technology? 

We’re the only ones with a track record and a history of reliability, especially in transient parking systems. That’s not to say there aren’t other companies, but they are not operating to any type of degree that can show reliability or longevity of the machine. Some of them are in conceptual stages. There are a few other firms that purport to have systems but they don’t have any operating history. Why would you spend money on technology that is not proven? You have developers looking at price and not dealing with safety issues or reliability, thinking that all automated parking systems are the same. They’re not.

Are there any safety concerns? Could someone get stuck inside the system?

We have parked over 300,000 vehicles in our facilities, and not once have we had an accident with our vehicles. I don’t believe any conventional garage anywhere can hold that record. The whole system is a sterile system, which means it is impossible to have anyone stuck in the system unless someone physically removes multiple safety checks. Should there be an issue where the system stops, it cannot automatically restart. It must be visually checked before we can start it up.

One time someone dropped a silver piece of chewing gum wrapper, and it fell by one of the sites between the floor and one of the pallets and got stuck in those brushes. When the system was being checked for safety, that came back as an error, and we physically had to go there to see what was causing the error. The process I just explained is no more than a five-to-seven-minute process.

What about terrorism or bomb threats?   

One of my first concepts after 9/11 was to develop a system with bomb-detection equipment. We have worked somewhat with Smiths Detection in concept to marry bomb-detection equipment with our system. We know it can work, but unfortunately the pricing is extremely high on the Smiths Detection portion. But it’s absolutely doable, and we have a prototype onboard that will show how it can operate.

We have reached out to Homeland Security, because we thought it would be great to have at embassies. We are talking about doing something like this even at airports. At Rockefeller Center, a guy goes with a mirror underneath the car. That is the most ridiculous thing—there’s nothing you can ever find with something like that. There are various concepts, but you need governments and municipalities that are willing to pay for this technology.

What can Brooklynites anticipate in terms of the park itself? 

The original park design was conceptualized with Hargreaves Associates, which was hired by the EDC [Economic Development Corporation]. It is our job to now take those designs and create the working drawings. We have a great team of landscapers and arborists working with us to execute the plan.

I’m advocating to get approval for the lighting at the park to be 100 percent off the grid. We can do lighting using solar energy and battery backups that will be warranted for 10 years, and we need to get both types of technologies out into the public. Can you imagine doing everything green, yet wasting electricity for the lights when there’s technology we can use today that can help us be off the grid?

How did the launch of Automotion in 2003 come about? 

Automotion Parking Systems started because there was a development issue in terms of a site that American Development was involved in, which was a plot of land with parked vehicles. Our initial intention was not to do anything other than build condos on the site. We realized, after buying the lot and while in the process of developing, that there was a parking need that couldn’t be met. I was looking for alternatives, and my search eventually ended up starting Automotion Parking Systems with a designing system that would work in the U.S. [and] had significant reliabilities. We realized that this technology is really a development tool, and it can be [used] elsewhere for various developers and buyers who have similar issues and problems on how to enhance their projects.

While the guys at Automotion understand how to manipulate the machines, how to design the machines—when it comes to dealing with specific issues of how to gain additional space and what to do with it, I will spend my time as needed with various stakeholders.

What’s the construction schedule for the project?

The environmental remediation is starting at the beginning of August. The official groundbreaking will begin when the buildings that are there are removed, so we’re probably looking at a number of months before the official groundbreaking occurs. There is a deadline—officially it goes out to 2019. Our [own] deadline is 2016. There’s no reason why we should extend this any further than we have to. We’re fast-tracking what we need to do here.

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