Automakers have been talking about a shift from new car sales towards a more service-oriented business model for some time, but for many of these car companies such a shift has proven difficult. One reason for this emerged in recent news about the General Motors Maven car-sharing experiment, in which the massive automaker struggled to manage direct consumer relations that have traditionally been handled by dealers. But what if the shift toward services took advantage of maturing automation technology, like car washes provided by autonomous flying drones? That's a possibility that BMW seems to be looking into, according to recently-published patent application documents.
This new application envisions an automated system by which an unmanned aerial drone can be reserved or summoned to automatically wash a car. The drone would be able to recognize the target vehicle, determine that all windows and doors are closed and send an alert if they are not, detect the level of dirt, remove any objects that prevent cleaning as well as take before and after photos to be sent to the customer. The washing process would involve pre-washing, washing, drying and waxing, although the patent application does not specify details for how the washing would take place. The drone could be located in the vehicle it would clean, essentially making it a self-cleaning vehicle, or it could be placed in another vehicle that would act as a home base for drones that clean other vehicles.
According to BMW's application for a patent on a car-washing drone system, demand for automated car-washing services could already be close to maturity. "In current market there are several vehicle cleaning service providers aiming to provide convenient and personalized vehicle cleaning reservation services via mobile apps," the application states. "Several service providers even have introduced the delivery vehicle cleaning services, saving a vehicle owner from an effort of driving the vehicle to a vehicle cleaning station. The service gained some popularity among a few target customers." Indeed, apps like MobileWash, Spiffy, Washos and others all offer on-demand car washes, while Ford has partnered with several mobile car wash companies including Spiffy to provide car wash services through its FordPass smartphone app. BMW may be especially interested in this technology since there are a number of reports of BMWs having issues with some automatic car washes, and an in-house drone car wash system would allow them to conveniently offer customized car washes anywhere.
There's also another, more futuristic possible application for this technology: cleaning sensors on self-driving cars, for whom traditional car washes are a "nightmare." The patent application mentions the possibility that a drone cleaning mission could be triggered by an event like a snow- or sandstorm, and that the drone could automatically clean affected vehicles. This raises the possibility that BMW could use drones to clean an autonomous vehicle whose sensors have been occluded by sand, dirt, snow or even something like bird droppings, returning it to service quickly and automatically. Simpler systems for sensor cleaning already exist on several ADAS-equipped vehicles, Waymo has shown its own lidar dome wiper and patent applications for such sensor cleaning systems exist from Daimler, Continental, Valeoand others. As autonomous vehicles move toward real-world deployments in more challenging environments, the problem of providing support logistics will only increase... and solutions like BMW's exciting new car wash drone could come into their own.