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Harnessing technology to improve convenience and clean up the unsustainable and often exploitative car washing industry

by Jessica Weisman-Pitts
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Christian Duncan and Mike Grindy are the Co-founders of Dropless, a waterless car washing service revolutionising the way we look after our cars.

With an estimated £1bn spent on car washing in the UK every year, the car washing industry is doing incredibly well – financially speaking that is. On the surface, those car washing services you see scattered across many of our cities may seem innocuous, simply providing a much needed service to the owners of the 32.6m registered cars in the UK. However, once you lift the bonnet and look a little closer, there’s an array of issues which spurred the beginning of a technology-led car washing revolution.

Despite our increasingly automated and technology-led lives, the world of car washing evidently missed the memo. Trying to book a car washing service that fitted around our busy schedules proved to be almost impossible. After searching endlessly online it was clear there wasn’t an appropriate solution.

Genuinely amazed by how an industry that was doing so ‘well’ could be so far behind when it comes to technology and customer convenience, the seed of an idea was planted for Dropless, our app-based mobile waterless car washing service.

Whilst increasing customer convenience was important – allowing users to book mobile car washes and repairs in a similar way to how you might book an Uber – as we dug deeper we soon realised there was a more sinister side to the car washing industry that we also needed to address.

The traditional car washing industry is in desperate need of an overhaul

Car washes aren’t regulated, meaning anyone with a bucket and some gumption can set up shop without having to abide by rules that would ordinarily secure worker rights. This has in-turn allowed for exploitive employment practices, often involving people trafficking and modern human slavery, to go unchecked and proliferate within car washing facilities across the country.

Currently, there are an estimated 8,000 hand car washes engaging in illegal activity with many being deemed as ‘modern-day slavery in plain sight’ by the Environmental Audit Committee.

Furthermore, the detrimental impact this is having on the environment is evident too as we’re seeing un-regulated carbon emissions sky rocket and water wastage reaching record levels through traditional car washing.

Additionally, the products used and drainage practices also go unchecked, allowing pollutants that have the potential to destroy water ecosystems, to wash down into our water systems untreated. The Curlew, Water Vole and Natterjack are just a few of the unique, water dwelling animals under threat and with the protection of ecosystems high on the COP’s agenda for this year’s summit, we hope that more focus will go into regulating this area.

A single, traditional car wash can use between 150-200 litres of water. Our waterless car wash, on the other hand, uses just two litres of water diluted with a chemical-free, eco-friendly nano-solution which effectively lifts dirt from the car’s paint without the need for copious amounts of water. We’ve saved over 20 million litres of water in the last year alone.

The traditional car washing industry is predominantly comprised of Tesco ‘Wave’ like providers (supermarket drop-off car washers) and ‘Mechanised’ providers (drive through washers at a standard petrol station). In a recent report we commissioned with a group of Oxford and Cambridge PhD students, we found our total emissions to be around 0.57 kg CO2 per wash whereas for competitors, that figure reaches between 1.27 and 1.55 kg CO2 per wash (see graph below). While our figure is lower than competitors we’re committed to using the insights gathered from this study to further drive down our carbon emissions.

What’s next for the waterless car washing revolution?

Four years on, we’ve built a team of over a hundred people and operate consumer-facing services in London, Surrey, Cardiff, Bath, Bristol and Manchester, with more planned. We also service tens of thousands of fleet vehicles for business customers such as Amazon and Royal Mail – but this is just the beginning.

In the years to come, we’d like to shift public perception of us from ‘just’ a car-washing service provider to a tech and data business that is actively trying to simplify the way people manage their vehicles as a whole. We have a team of 20 developers in Bristol working very hard to improve the usability of our platform and build features designed to revolutionise the way we look after our vehicles.

In time, we’d like for our app to draw data on the health of the entire vehicle and then use those information points to provide real time diagnostics and resolutions to any problem that may arise.

Essentially, we are using AI technology to help us understand our customers’ vehicles better so we can start pre-empting what service they need without them even having to think about it. For example, we can anticipate when you will need to change your tires, prepare your car in advance of an MOT, or provide a quote for a scratch that we’ve identified. This is totally new terrain for the industry and we definitely have our work cut out for us but we’re beyond excited to be capitalising on our ‘first mover advantage.’

Our aim is to revolutionise the car health and car care industry in the same way that Uber has revolutionised transport and food delivery – updating a previously analog industry to more conveniently service the consumer. This does have its fair share of significant challenges since we’re implementing a foundational change to the market as we know it, but the pay-off for consumers, businesses, workers and the environment all makes it worthwhile.