Fred A. Bernstein

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Smart Elevators

No more guessing which car to take

Published in The New York Times, November 2, 2005


The best way to see the future of New York elevators may be to visit the Marriott Marquis, the giant hotel in Times Square.

Visitors who get into the elevators there, expecting to press a button for their floor, are stymied: there are no buttons in the elevators. Instead, there are keypads in the lobby. Punch in the floor you want, and a digital readout tells you which elevator to take (each car is identified by a letter). "I call it the express bus system," said the hotel's general manager, Michael J. Stengel.

Because it knows where people are going before they board, the computer controlling the elevators can sort passengers, eliminating a pet peeve of elevator riders: doors that open at floor after floor even though the car is full.

Already, Mr. Stengel said, a system installed in "the back of the house" - the service zone used by employees - has drastically cut average elevator waiting time.

The "front of the house" system for guests, largely operational now, is expected to be finished in early 2006. It is made by the Schindler Elevator Corporation of Morristown, N.J., a division of the Schindler Group, based in Switzerland.

Smart elevator systems from Schindler are also being installed in the Hearst Building (designed by Norman Foster) and One Bryant Park (designed by Cook + Fox Architects).

Downtown, a similar system made by the Otis Elevator Company of Farmington, Conn., has been installed at 7 World Trade Center, which is nearly completed but still empty. Carl Galioto, a technical partner at the firm that designed the building, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, says such "destination control" systems, which he says can reduce average trip time by 30 percent, "are one of the greatest vehicles for improving performance of a building."

At an office building at 1180 Avenue of the Americas, at 46th Street, where Schindler's keypads are mounted on custom black-granite pedestals, employees streaming into the building perform an orderly ballet, entering floor numbers and then proceeding to elevators marked A through H.

At the Marriott Marquis, things are a bit more complicated: red-jacketed employees have to help some visitors navigate the system.

Smart elevator systems require users to take it on faith that the system will give them the quickest ride. David Ferguson, an architect from Indiana who was at the Marriott Marquis for meetings, said, "It's frustrating when you're waiting a long time for an elevator, and a car door opens and you can't get on because it isn't going to your floor."

In addition, if you get on an elevator and change your mind, there is no way to get the elevator to stop at your new destination, several passengers noted.

Then there's the piggyback problem. A group of people arriving together know that they are going to the same floor, so only one of them punches in, which means the elevator does not know how many riders to expect. The car can end up overcrowded.

At 7 World Trade Center, the system devised by Mr. Galioto's team addresses the piggyback problem. An identification card that admits an employee to the elevator lobby simultaneously tells the system which floor the employee works on. (There will be an override for people who want to visit another floor.) Since each person will have to swipe a card before reaching the elevators, the elevators will know precisely how many passengers are heading to each destination.

Smart elevator technology promises further personalization, according to Sula Moudakis, director of high-rise traction installations for Schindler.

"Say I'm a V.I.P. and I really don't want to ride with anybody else," Ms. Moudakis said. "So when I swipe my card, the system assigns me an elevator with nobody in it, and that elevator gives me an express trip to my floor.

"Or if it's a building with elevators that normally drop passengers at the second level - and from there you take an escalator down - a person with a disability could get a trip to the ground floor, based on information in his card. You're basically unlimited to the type of individualization you can provide."

Of course, the system will require additional record-keeping. If your office moves from one floor to another, your card will have to be changed. And there might be privacy concerns about tracking which floor a person is on at any time.

Retrofitting buildings with smart elevator systems is expensive. At the Marriott, where long waits for elevators have been a frustration since the building opened in 1985, the project cost $11 million, Mr. Stengel said. Because the hotel was designed with the elevator bank forming a ring in the center of the 45-story atrium, adding elevators was not an option. Increasing the efficiency of the existing system was the goal.

Not all developers are sold on smart elevator systems. The Wynn Las Vegas, a 50-story, $2.7 billion hotel that opened this year, has conventional elevators, and that can mean long waits.

Ms. Moudakis said the Wynn decided against installing the system because it would be unfamiliar to guests. "Their concern is visitors coming into the building and seeing keypads and not knowing what to do," she said.

But at the Marriott Marquis, most passengers appeared to have little trouble with the keypad system. "If you use it the wrong way the first time, you'll use it the right way the second time," Mr. Stengel said.

Ms. Moudakis of Schindler agreed that riders on smart elevators do not need to be smart themselves. "Our argument is, it's very intuitive," she said.

"If we can make it work at the Marriott Marquis," she added, "we're going to revolutionize the industry."