Parking your car by computer
NOT all of us own cars in Hongkong but, for those that do, two major nightmares are traffic jams and a lack of parking.
One company has launched a technical initiative to help solve the latter problem.
Nissei Build, a Japanese firm in a joint venture with Shaw Holdings, is pushing its automated, space-saving parking system to private developers.
''Essentially, the system is a tower of structural steel with an integrated turntable and elevator at the base,'' said Mr Darren Shaw, managing director of Nissei Build (HK).
While Japan has had automated parking blocks for nearly 30 years, Mr Shaw explained that construction costs, land costs and labour rates influenced the economic viability of the technology.
Only in the last few years had the technology become potentially attractive to developers here.
Nissei Build also makes pre-fabricated houses and automated warehousing systems and is worth about US$1.3 billion, while the car parking arm has annual sales of $500 million.
The system has been under discussion with Hongkong authorities for more than two years.
Mr Shaw said there were two reasons it had taken so long for the idea to become a reality.
Firstly, the company was in the midst of discussions in other Asian countries; and, secondly, the system had to meet with a variety of fire and general construction safety standards.
''The main unit we are marketing is the Tower Park, which only needs an area approximately equivalent to the area taken up by three parked cars.
''The standard unit holds 50 cars and is about 12 storeys high,'' said Mr Shaw.
A driver pulls into the base of the tower and then gets out of the car and goes outside.
The car is sitting on a palette and as soon as the driver enters details on a touch screen or button control panel outside, the system initiates itself.
Firstly, the palette's weight sensors check if the vehicle falls within safety requirements.
The palette then moves forward and rotates itself until it is in the centre of the construction.
The elevator then moves the car to a vacant level and slides the palette into the empty space.
''In terms of speed, the recovery time averages just over one and a half minutes,'' said Mr Shaw.
This was faster than any contemporary multi-storey car park, he said.
For Hongkong, the system has numerous advantages.
Developers have access to a number of small plots of land, especially close to Central.
Some will never be developed due to building regulations making them financially unviable.
For example, there is little point in constructing a 12-storey building without at least one lift system.
In addition, a fire escape has to be added under fire regulations, and health requirements demand a certain number of toilet facilities per floor or number of occupants.
These realities mean the actual office or residential area is shrunk even further on the limited plot size and the project becomes commercially untenable.
From the car owner's point of view, the Nissei system has another advantage.
Car theft, especially of luxury models, is rising in Hongkong yet again.
The parking blocks are normally insured against theft and, according to Mr Shaw, no car has ever been stolen from one of the Japanese car blocks.
''It's virtually impossible to steal a car from this system,'' he said.
The configuration of the car park block can vary and one of the main variations will be the sophistication of the control panel used by customers.
The simplest will log where your car is parked and give you an encoded magnetic stripped card.
To get your car back, the card is inserted into a reader and the system lowers your car to the ground floor, facing the street and ready to drive.
But there are more sophisticated systems.
''We have developed an optical licence plate reader and, over a period of time, it will anticipate the collection times of the car,'' said Mr Shaw.