A "parking patch" could bring together wireless sensors and mobile apps to steer drivers towards vacant spots, and lead traffic wardens to parking offenders
IT'S a problem familiar to most of us: you circle for ages waiting to find a parking space and just when you've spotted one, someone else darts in first.
Now a "parking patch" could change that by bringing together wireless sensors and mobile apps to steer drivers towards those elusive vacant spots, while also allowing traffic wardens to home in on parking offenders.
Some local authorities have already started embedding radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in parking permits. But while this makes it easier for wardens to check their validity with a quick scan by a handheld reader, it does little else, says Adrian Bone, CEO of Deteq Solutions, a start-up that developed the new parking patch at the Sussex Innovation Centre in Brighton, UK. The real challenge lies in telling when a parking space is empty or occupied without having to fit a car with any special equipment, he says.
Bone's solution, developed with company co-founder John Bartington at the University of Essex in Colchester, is to attach cheap, low-powered wireless sensors to the road surface in each parking bay. These 7-centimetre-wide patches are glued down in the centre of each bay, where they can detect when a car is present or not. As the firm is currently filing a patent, it won't yet reveal exactly how the sensor works, but the device will wirelessly relay information to a base station via a mesh network with its neighbours. This means the system does not require any new infrastructure. It is designed to work in conjunction with RFID permits if required, and a smartphone app. A trial is due to begin at the University of Sussex in the next few weeks.
The app would give drivers real-time information about available parking spaces near where they were, with streets colour-coded depending on how many spots were free at the time.
The system can also alert traffic wardens when drivers have parked on no-stop zones, helping to reduce congestion. It could allow local authorities to use dynamic parking tariffs, says Bone. This is where real-time data about the occupancy of spaces is used to set parking prices. So parking in less congested areas and at quieter times of day would be cheaper. "You can set prices to encourage people to park elsewhere," he says.
Some modern shopping centres and car parks can already guide customers towards vacant parking bays, and even remind them of where they parked when they return. But these systems, developed by Park Assist in Australia, rely on expensive networks of cameras, one for each bay, and so can only be deployed in covered multistorey car parks.
Another approach being tested in San Francisco is to bury magnetometers in each bay. Developed by Georgia-based StreetSmart, it covers more than 8000 bays and, like the patches, uses a wireless mesh network. The trial is also experimenting with dynamic pricing.
Parking is ripe for a revamp, and this kind of app-based technology is going to play a vital role, says Paul Watters, head of road policy with the UK's Automobile Association in Basingstoke. But it is equally important that the information is controlled, he says. Drivers wouldn't like it if there was no leeway and fines were issued as soon as their time was up. And while the apps could easily warn drivers when their time is running out, they could also alert wardens. "It could end up as a race to get to the car," he says.
Driving up emissions
The hunt for parking spaces is not just frustrating, it is a major contributor to congestion, says Paul Watters of the UK's Automobile Association. "Most people are creatures of habit and like to park in the same area, so if their preferred spot doesn't have any spaces they will often drive around waiting for one to become free rather than searching further afield."
That means more emissions. According to a 2007 study by Donald Shoup at the University of California, Los Angeles, drivers in a 15-block district of LA notched up a staggering 1.5 million kilometres a year looking for parking spaces. That's the equivalent of 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of wasted gasoline and 662 tonnes of carbon dioxide.