Conventional wisdom has held that car washing is a relationship business. In structuring their operations, car washers have adhered to the maxim that people do business with people and, as a result, have worked at staffing their washes with friendly, customer-service-oriented employees. Owners were, more often than not, personally on site at least some of the time. This approach still exists in the industry. It’s a question, though, whether it’s waning.

Technology is changing everything. Advances in car wash equipment have made it possible to wash, shine, and dry a car without any human intervention at all, while automation has allowed for controlled payment for and entry into the wash. A wash location devoid of all employees is the ideal to strive for. Will we ever get there? The greater question perhaps is: should we want to?

Self-service wash operators, whose businesses were designed from the get-go to run without staff, have discovered that having labor on site, even if just part time, is beneficial.

Appearances are kept up, equipment malfunctions are more readily identified and corrected or mitigated, vandalism is curtailed, and customers are set at ease, which is a natural consequence of person-to-person contact.

Of course, human avoidance appears to be a calculated consumer choice, considering the speed with which they have adopted technology that enables long-distance, impersonal business transactions. The explosive growth of online shopping has forced any number of household-name retailers to close branches across the country. Shopping malls are being abandoned. The face of retailing is changing.

Even brick-and-mortar retailers are changing their approach to customer service. The supermarket I frequent has had self-checkout terminals in its stores for several years. They are now implementing something new. Customers use a handheld device to scan their purchases and bag them in their cart as they negotiate the aisles. At the checkout terminal they scan a barcode on the checkout screen, which then displays the amount owed, and payment is accepted.

I remonstrated with a company representative, complaining that the supermarket was eliminating service. He disagreed. “Speed” was what the store was aiming for. Nobody wants to stand in line, the rep explained, and the new system moved everyone along faster. Besides, he added, younger customers preferred not dealing with another human being. Using technology instead suited their needs.

Technology has its limitations — perfection is still a ways off. Even some well-established automated functions still have glitches. Two recent frustrating encounters involve the telephone. In the first, a doctor’s office left an automated reminder of an appointment.

The voice message skipped and garbled so badly I had to phone to get the address from the receptionist. I did battle in the second with my auto insurer’s voice recognition telephone system. Suffice it to say it’s incapable of recognizing anything. In each case, instead of saving time and employee involvement, it cost.

Car washers’ recognition of technology’s imperfections may explain why those with automated tunnels and access at their exterior washes back up the system with either live greeters or help loading onto the conveyor. In fact, our Exterior Conveyor Survey found that more express exterior operators employ live greeters than use an automated pay station.

Is an express exterior wash still a relationship business? Maybe not. Its most significant attribute can be found in its name: express. Speed, it seems, is the new service.