Barnidge: New technology may solve your parking problems

Zia Yusuf said he read a story in Fortune magazine estimating that as many as 45 percent of the drivers on Brooklyn, N.Y., streets are searching for parking places. He wasn't kidding.

We can imagine the vehicles circling endlessly, burning fuel, spewing exhaust and clogging traffic. The drivers are scowling, impatience written on their faces.

It is easy to relate. Parking in the Bay Area is no treat.

Said Yusuf, "You shouldn't be living in a world where you cannot be guided to a block with parking space."

That's a little wordy for a corporate slogan, but it sums up the mission of Streetline Networks, a San Francisco firm of which Yusuf is chief executive.

Using low-power wireless sensors in the pavement and electronically interfacing them with parking meters, Streetline expects to revolutionize the mundane business of parking a car. Someday, drivers will be directed to available parking places by electronic signage, smartphones or GPS systems. Parking enforcement will know which meters are in operation and which have expired.

It is all part of what Yusuf describes as smart city technology.

Here's how it works:

(1) The sensors, one per metered space, detect the presence of a vehicle.

(2) A signal is relayed to a modified meter that recognizes if payment has been made.

(3) The collected information is networked to a data center for dissemination. (Yusuf opened his laptop and accessed an active system that showed the status of every parking spot for four square blocks: occupied, vacant, expired or broken. That information is available now to parking enforcement. Smartphone and GPS applications are yet to come.)

Only a few test programs are in operation -- San Francisco and Los Angeles are among four cities to sign on -- and Streetline is in its infancy. The first 3 of the company's five years were spent in research and development.

The technology is the brainchild of Ted Dykstra, who formerly worked for Dust Networks, a Berkeley company that designs sensors and circuits. His specialty is low-power sensor networks.

"Ted is interested in transportation," Yusuf said, "so he put the two together and looked at the topic of smart cities. How can a city talk to you? How do you connect the physical world to the electronic world? We decided to try parking meters first."

The sensors, which utilize magnetometers and are powered by two AA lithium batteries (life span: 7-10 years), can be mounted atop the driving surface like a raised pavement marker or embedded at street level after a shallow hole is drilled.

Streetline executives won't say precisely how much their product costs, but places the price per sensor at $300 for installation with a $120 annual subscription fee.

The possibilities are nearly endless: detecting cars parked illegally near fire hydrants, in red zones or near high-security buildings; pinpointing which meters need to have coins emptied and which need repairs; measuring traffic volume and the speed of passing vehicles.

"The other thing we can do," Executive Vice President Ken Voss said, "is take a fingerprint of each vehicle. Every one has a different magnetic fingerprint. So we can tell not only if it is there, but if it has moved or if it has been replaced by a different vehicle. We know when a vehicle is entering a space and when it's leaving."

Help is on the way, parkers. In the meantime, keep circling.
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