Three Emerging Technologies in Parking – and One That’s Not
It was in the last century that I had my first parking start-up company. Founded in 1992 and sold in 1999, it was an exciting time to be in the tech business: the wonderful invention of the internet, the dreaded Y2K bug, and the hot-ticket of owning a “dot-com” company (at least until the bubble burst).
Fast forward to today, some 25 years later as I write this. I recently launched another parking start-up company, and I’m immersed in all the newest modern technology available.
Oh, how things have changed!
Tech activities that used to be difficult have become much easier (for example: setting up a server used to take two days; now it’s done in two minutes). And as a result of such streamlining, I find that technology is moving faster than ever.
Our beloved parking industry continues to be impacted by new technology, and subsequently also has increased the pace of change in technology. Here are some of the emerging technology trends that I’m seeing across our industry:
Trend 1: Data are the new treasure.
Remember the good ol’ days when a parking manager’s expert opinion was all that was needed to sway the mayor, or a board of directors, or other parking stakeholders? Parking policy was created on intuition. Those days are gone. Conjecture is insufficient.
Today’s parking manager must be armed with reams of data to influence any decision or change of direction, ready to pull out charts and graphs in any meeting.
Data have become a key output of modern parking operations.
Parking managers must deliver data just as much as they deliver revenue and equitable access to space.
“Interoperability” – the fancy word that means making two systems talk to each other – has become the norm for technology software. Data sharing is a requirement for vendors to provide in all their products; no system can be a data “island.” Parking operators want a best-of-breed solution, which means cherry-picking different technologies for meters, or PARCS, or counts, and ensuring these systems share data through an API (application programming interface).
Furthermore, with interoperability comes another big word: “intermediation.” These are the third-parties between your parking operation and your parking consumers. A new breed of intermediary companies is helping you sell your parking and collect your revenues.
Three examples: (1) Pay-by-cell providers offer value to your parking consumer in exchange for a convenience fee; (2) Space reservations companies will take your parking spaces and sell them on your behalf; and (3) Data-oriented companies are gathering availability data to push parkers to your lots — or to your competitors’ lots.
What’s interesting about all these intermediaries is that are heavy-on-software and light-on-infrastructure. For some comparison, think about how Uber is the largest transportation company in the world and doesn’t own any cars; Airbnb is the largest lodging company and doesn’t own any beds. These companies leverage technology to efficiently bring together supply and demand.
Who will leverage technology to become the biggest provider
of parking, yet not own any
Trend 2: Who needs hardware when there’s an app for that?
According to the website AppAnnie.com, in mid-2017, the average American smartphone had 93 installed apps (including those that come with the phone), of which 36 get used every month, and about 10 are used daily. And, on average, Americans spend 2 hours and 15 minutes on their phone every day. “Consumers have spoken: By and large, they prefer to manage their lives through apps. For many industries, apps are increasingly becoming a must-have.”
This is becoming true of parking. We’re using our smartphones more and more – is that really a surprise? But what’s less noticeable about this trend is that the smartphone is replacing hardware and infrastructure that have been popular for years.
Paper maps are now apps. Your phone book is an app. You watch TV without your TV. Boarding pass? Newspaper? Music player? Book? Wallet? No need … there’s an app for that.
And in the parking industry, we’re seeing the same thing; i.e., less dependency on hardware and more on the user’s smartphone.
The parking meter is the first to come to mind, when pay-by-cell provides more user flexibility (expiration reminder, extended time). Some places have replaced meters altogether, with pay-by-cell as the replacement.
Other hardware may not be disappearing completely, but the need is reduced and the function evolves. A user’s app can act as a parking pass (credential) in a garage, potentially replacing dozens of antennas and thousands of RFID tags with simpler barcode readers or Bluetooth sensors.
One last example: QR codes. (You remember QR codes – those weird, square, two-dimensional barcodes.) Quick Response codes have the potential to save us from the PCI/EMV/P2PE torture that comes with credit cards these days. And while QR codes never really took off in North America, they are tremendously popular in China and other places where mobile payments and micro-payments are much more prevalent than North America. QR Codes for payment are secure, don’t require any specialized equipment, and can be easily implemented into an app.
For parking operations with frequent, small-value transactions, QR codes are more convenient for a consumer than using a credit card with per-transaction fees or carrying a pocketful of change. Parking hasn’t widely adopted this – yet.
Trend 3: Pics, or It Didn’t Happen.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. Cameras are everywhere, from surveillance to selfies; now your image can unlock your phone. Image-recognition technologies have reached the tipping point in many industries, including parking.
Probably the least surprising aspect of cameras in parking is the ever-growing popularity of license plate recognition (LPR). The image processing has become excellent, working remarkably well even on plates with strange backgrounds or horribly colored characters.
Just about every parking manager that I talk to says that LPR is either part of their operation today or will be in the near future. The license plate used to be a secondary credential behind a permit or spitter-ticket, but now it’s become primary for many parking operations.
Cameras are also counting cars, tracking space occupancy and availability, and watching for safety issues (such as a car parked in front of a walkway), providing notifications for usual conditions. Artificial intelligence and pattern-matching software converts images to data with surprising accuracy — data that can then be used in the parking office or shared with parkers to help them make better decisions before hunting an empty space.
Motion-sensing cameras do an even more impressive job, observing pedestrians in crosswalks, analyzing vehicle flow, dynamically managing traffic lights. This used to be science fiction; now it’s technology fact. Parking is just starting to embrace these technologies.
Anti-Trend: Self-Driving Cars
Finally, I promised to deliver a non-emerging technology trend. Here you go: autonomous vehicles.
It’s my opinion that self-driving cars are not changing the world of parking today. Nor will they tomorrow. Or even in the five years. Futurists, city planners and politicians have jumped on the bandwagon because it’s a great topic with lots of promise, magically solving our self-inflicted conundrum of too many cars sharing the road.
The reality is that this technology is not yet ready for prime-time. Not even close. The best we have today is Level-3 autonomy (“conditional automation”), and that’s limited to adaptive cruise control and lane-tracking in daytime, good weather, and on highways where the flow of traffic is one-way. (I’m prepared to argue with anyone who claims, “My Tesla already does that and more …”)
What North Americans really want is a higher level of self-driving that works both in the city and on the highway, and in inclement weather, too.
Demonstrations of the Level-4 autonomy most valuable to consumers, or complete Level-5 autonomy (“Look, Ma, no steering wheel!”), are thus far a contrived, though admittedly impressive, publicity stunt. But we’re many years away from mass production, and many more years from this impacting parking to a notable degree.
Technology moves forward not at a constant speed, but rather accelerating as things that were hard-to-do yesterday are easier today.
The parking industry has traditionally been a late-adopter of new technology, but this is definitely changing. I can confidently say that technology change is more rapid today than at any time in my last 25 years in parking. And I’m looking forward to the next 25!
Blake Laufer is the Founder, most recently, of MiStall Insight, a Canada-based company providing live data collection and analytics for surface and on-street parking. Contact him at email@example.com.