When patrons of the Garden Street garage in Hoboken, N.J., went to retrieve their vehicles in August, they were surprised that the robotic garage that had so efficiently parked their cars until then had seemingly turned against them, trapping their cars for several days.

The fully automated garage didn't suffer from rusty rotors or gears; it crashed because of an expired software license and a dispute between the software provider and Hoboken.

Stories in the local newspaper, the Hudson Reporter, revealed an ongoing dispute between Hoboken, which owns the technological innovative garage, and Robotic Parking Inc., the company that created the software and operated the garage. According to the newspaper, the ongoing tumultuous relationship culminated when, days before the parking garage contract was set to expire, Hoboken ordered police to escort Robotic Parking employees from the garage. Hoboken officials didn't realize, however, was that the employees were leaving with software manuals and the intellectual know-how needed to operate the garage.

On July 19, Robotic issued a letter to the garage's patrons charging that the Hoboken Parking Utility still owed Robotic money, and that Parking Utility officials "repeatedly mounted unwarranted vulgar and threatening harassments" toward their staff. The letter said that Robotic would no longer be able "to further subsidize the city of Hoboken Parking Utility."

On Tuesday, July 25, Parking Utility head John Corea, flanked by several Hoboken police officers, escorted a Robotic Parking employee out of the garage in an attempt to take over operations.

Technical Difficulties

The Garden Street garage, a 100-by-100-foot fully automated parking structure, can house as many as 314 vehicles by lifting and pulling them into spots. Drivers pull into the entrance bay of the garage, leave their vehicle on a steel pallet, swipe a card, and the car is whisked away into the garage's interior. When vehicle owners return and swipe their card, their car is returned within minutes.

Because the garage has no ramps or driving lanes, it can hold three times as many vehicles as a conventional parking garage of the same size. For Hoboken, a city with nearly 30,000 people per square mile and few parking spaces that aren't on the street, the Garden Street garage should have been a blessing.

Yet problems began from the outset, when the garage opened in October 2002 -- years late and millions of dollars over budget. Hoboken and Robotic Parking blamed each other for problems during construction and development, which led to a series of attacks between officials from both entities in a series of stories that appeared in the Hudson Reporter.

According to the newspaper's coverage, soon after the garage began operations, Hoboken officials complained to the company about continual problems. To add to the feud, two cars were dropped and destroyed. Robotic Parking responded by telling the paper that the city exaggerated problems, and that the company was proud of its performance record.

When the software license term ended in 2005, the city began leasing the software on a month-to-month basis. The last straw for Hoboken came when Robotic Parking requested a 20 percent increase in software rent -- from $23,250 a month to $27,900 per month.

As a result, city officials pulled the plug on Robotic Parking. But without ownership rights to the software, or knowledge of how to operate the robotic parking structure without a manual, the garage shut down. And when the robot stopped working, there was no practical way of manually retrieving the vehicles.

Hoboken and Robotic Parking dragged the situation into court. Robotic Parking accused the city of using the software without a license and endangering its business by bringing in a competitor -- Israel-based Unitronics -- to operate the garage.

"We have the proprietary software in place at the garage, and [

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer