Humanity has always strived for constant improvement in each of its inventions. But it is a very recent phenomenon, perhaps of the last two decades, the obsession with making things "intelligent". Intelligence, an attribute that until the invention of the computer no one disputed as exclusive to living things (Penrose, 1989), now rules the world of technology. Over the years, we have seen how telephones, televisions, watches, lights, switches (the list goes on and on) have become intelligent.
While it has been a long time coming, it may be time for us to add intelligence to the parking experience.
A clarification: when we talk about parking, we are referring to parking on the public road and not in a private car park (whether general purpose or, for example, in a shopping mall). Unlike the others, this type of parking presents several extra difficulties, as we do not have a controlled environment, and with this a whole new set of variables comes into play.
You don't need to invest a lot of money in studies and surveys to confirm what we already suspect: everyone hates not finding a parking space. So do its consequences, such as wasting time, gas and patience, circling the block, craning their necks frantically and risking their lives in reverse when they see that they have passed an empty spot.
Unfortunately, in Uruguay we do not have research of this type (at least not accessible to the public), but there are several studies that tell us about long search times and a high percentage of traffic caused by looking for where to park (Hampshire & Shoup, 2019) (Shoup, 2007) (Zhu, 2022).
The studies speak of cities that are very different in many respects, so we can only use the information as a reference and estimate that we are no strangers to this situation. It would be more than interesting to do research on these issues in Uruguay.
Smart parking: the solution?
Given the major problems that plague the user and the city, it is clear that smart parking should aim to avoid unnecessary driving in search of a parking space. Therefore, we need to know where we are going to park before we arrive at our destination. Something very simple to say, but difficult to achieve.
So what are the solutions?
The parking space
The parking space must report something as simple as it is fundamental: whether it is free or not. This is the cornerstone: we must provide the system with the ability to report its occupancy status.
For this we differentiate between two main approaches. Firstly, the detection of spots by video analysis; in Creole, we place cameras whose images are analysed by software to determine whether a parking space is occupied or not.
There are a couple of problems with this system, but the main problem lies in the detection software. What may be very simple for the human eye is in many cases still impossible for a computer. What experts call "image occlusions" is one of the difficulties that leads to low detection success rates (Bulan, 2013). Also the costs of installing cameras, civil works, high traffic links, detection software, among others, make this alternative still very expensive to implement.
Secondly, the installation of sensors per parking space, which generally consists of ultrasonic and magnetic field sensors. In these cases, unlike camera detection, the environment is highly controlled and detection rates are around 99%.
For this reason, the latter option has emerged as the most promising (BOSCH, n.d.).
Now that we know how to spot places, we can ask ourselves: how do we find out about available places?
There are many possibilities for presenting and working with this information. Applications are appearing all over the world that integrate everything: assisted parking, with an app that shows available spaces in real time and guides the driver via GPS to his or her spot. Once there, the sensor identifies his mobile phone (via BLE or RFID) and allows him to pay in the app. Then, when he leaves the place, the sensor reports his exit and communicates with the payment system.
With this system, we only pay for the exact minutes we parked. This is an extremely comprehensive system, of which there are already pilots in cities such as Harrogate (UK) (Harrogate, n.d.).
In other cases, the user is only provided with information (via app or signage) about the availability of places in different areas.
It is not only users who can enjoy the benefits of these systems. In addition to the advantages mentioned at the beginning, many municipalities around the world use these platforms to obtain information about how the city is functioning.
A couple of years ago, the SF Park project (SF-Park, n.d.) installed 8100 sensors in the city of San Francisco (USA). With a strong academic focus, it emphasised the use of priced parking as an urban planning tool, with excellent results. Among them, speeding up turnover in commercial areas, a better distribution of parking spaces, adjusting rates, less evasion and a decrease in the amount of CO2 released, among others.
Technologies of the future
Interestingly, many of these sensors base their communication systems on new technologies. You may be tired of hearing about 5G, IoT, NB, Cat-M, LPWAN, LoRa, Sigfox, DASH7, Wize, MIoTy, UltraNarrowBand, among other acronyms.
These sensors, which in the future we will see by the dozens on our streets, are supported by these new technologies, which allow them to be installed with little infrastructure. This solves the cost constraints we had years ago.
What is happening in Uruguay with smart parking?
At the moment, we do not have any deployment of this type in our country. In Isbel we have carried out some pilots and we even have our own sensor system in our facilities.
Hopefully over time we will start to see some smart parking deployments in the city, either by state or private initiative.
This type of system can not only contribute to the problem of general parking, but also to the control of parking spaces in general, whether for the disabled, restricted areas such as embassies or ministries. As well as loading and unloading bays.
A road ahead
This use of these systems is just beginning, and there is still a long way to go. But the foundations of the technology are in place and it is time we started to take advantage of them.
Many people dream of not having to spend minutes looking for a parking space.
BOSCH (n.d.). BOSCH SmartParking devices. Retrieved from https://www.bosch-connectivity.com/products/connected-mobility/parking-lot-sensor/
Bulan, O. (2013). Video-based real-time on-street parking occupancy detection system. Journal of Electronic Imaging.
Hampshire, R. C., & Shoup, D. (2019, July). What Share of Traffic is Cruising for Parking? Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, 52, 184-201.
Harrogate, C. (n.d.). Harrogate Council. Retrieved from https://www.harrogate.gov.uk/appy
Penrose, R. (1989). The emperor's new mind.
SF-Park (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sfmta.com/projects/sfpark-pilot-program
Shoup, D. (2007). Cruising for Parking. ACCESS, 16-22.
José Luis Nunes, Engineering Specialist of Telco & Smart Cities.
Joselo is an electrical engineer (Telecommunications) from the Universidad de la República. For 6 years he has been working in Isbel in the area of after-sales and implementation of large projects.