Parking in the smart city

Image courtesy from Google

Parking lots have largely been ignored when it comes to technological innovations and ideas. However, with the increasing number of cars on the street, along with the time taken to park them, the problem must now be effectively addressed. Devavrat Kulkarni, Senior Business Analyst at Maven Systems Pvt. Ltd., shares his insight on it as part of various smart cities initiatives.

What’s wrong with normal parking?

Simply put, it’s inefficient, frustrating and time-consuming. Driving around after arriving at a mall or a multiplex is annoying, while searching for a spot in a hospital lot is nerve-wracking. The issue at hand is simple: parking lots have been ignored while automobiles have been making huge strides. However, that’s about to change. Frost & Sullivan report that the current global $100 billion industry is looking at investments to the tune of $200-$250 million through 2019. Navigant Research believes that by 2020, we could be looking at around a million smart spaces worldwide.

How to bring about the revolution?

So what makes off-street parking lots so difficult to work with? For starters, they are huge; they are multi-layered; and frankly, people have almost accepted trying to find a free space as part and parcel of life. However, there have been smart parking pilots and experimental setups, and the results, while in their infancy, are promising.

One example is the Baltimore/Washington Airport, which has huge boards guiding drivers towards free spaces. But since they do not use occupancy sensors, they cannot guide the driver right up to the parking space; rather they send them to an approximate location.

Meanwhile, a team from Rice University has developed a model where a camera is used to click minute-by-minute photos of parking lots, which are then analyzed by a computer. Using an object detection algorithm, the free spaces are found and communicated to the user. However, there is still a lot of room for development and improvement in this segment.

A smart solution

A truly smart parking system should not only be aware of the occupancy status of each space, but also be able to guide the user to it. All of this should happen without human intervention. A smart solution would account for many issues.

Each space should be tracked by the system. Multiple types of sensors can be used for this, but the sensors’ accuracy cannot be compromised. False positives must be minimal. As the number of sensors increases, cost will be drastically reduced. When the status of the sensors changes, a gateway device will be notified.

The issues to be tackled here are battery life, sensor positioning and the communication channel. As there will be a large number of sensors, wiring them for energy is out of the question. As a result, these sensors must be battery powered with power management algorithms. The sensors’ enclosure will have to take positioning into account. If installed in the open, the sensors need to be protected from heat, dust, rain, bugs and other natural phenomena. If they’re installed on the parking lot floor, the sensors must be able to take the weight of cars without malfunctioning or breaking down. In order to keep the number of gateway devices to a minimum, the servers must communicate on a technology with a long reach, like radio frequency, or they must work on a mesh protocol so the status change will reach the gateway by hopping.
connected-space                                        “Fig.Connected parking spaces”

These gateway devices will be used to collect the status from the sensors and then send them to the server. The gateways will work on wireless technology to transmit the status. A single gateway device will be used to collect the readings of multiple sensors; up to 500 sensors per gateway would be considered a good solution.

Gateways will face such issues as range, power supply, and cost. The more gateways per floor, the higher the solution cost. Thus gateways should be far and few and work on a medium that gives maximum range, like RF. Also, a mesh network for gateways will ensure that multi-floored and non-linear parking lots will be covered. Unlike sensors, which will be operational only when the status changes, gateways need to be up and running throughout the day. As a result, they will need a continuous power supply. To keep the cost of the gateways as low as possible, it is important to increase their lifespan by using the best possible hardware components, voltage protectors and enclosures to withstand extreme conditions like heat, cold, dust and bugs.

The server device will collect statuses from multiple gateways. It will then compute which spaces are free and which are occupied. When a new user enters the car park, the server will communicate with the user’s mobile application. It will guide the user with a map of the area and the location of the free spot. Then, the user can drive directly to the specified destination.

One of the issues the server will face is dual protocol compatibility. Since the server will communicate with both the gateway and the mobile application, it will have to run on two distinct communication protocols: GPRS and RF. For on-street parking, the server will have to consider street maps, the parking side of road (for countries with alternate rules), and where the user wants to park, so the nearest free spot can be found. For off-street parking, the server has only to consider a map of the entire structure. In both cases, the server will communicate the location and the map; the path and directions will be shown by the mobile/tablet device with the application.

The user touch point is a smart phone application that can be run on either a smart phone or tablet. The application will receive the map and location from the server. Then, the application will direct the user to the spot. For on-street parking, the application will use GPS in order to get the directions. For off-street parking, the application will have to use devices installed inside the parking lot, depending on where the car is at the moment.

The use of the application is twofold. Once the user has parked the car, the user will confirm the location, and the application will store it. When the user is trying to find the car, the application will guide the user to it, reducing the time users spend trying to locate their cars. Once again, in case of on-street parking, the application will use GPS, while for off-street parking, the application will use the reference devices installed inside the parking space.

Future directions

Again, smart solutions are still in their infancy. As they mature, additional features will be offered to make parking easier for drivers.

  1. Payment modes: Both on-street and off-street spaces charge. This entire transaction can be made from the mobile phone. Also, specific lots, like on-street parking, have time limits. In case a car overstays the allotted amount of time, an alert can be sent to the towing company/police for ticketing or towing.
  2. Parking reservations: Instead of driving to the lot and then getting directions, customers will be able to reserve parking from their home, even before leaving. For this, the server will need an Internet connection and must be able to recognize the appropriate customer.
  3. Connected lighting: Parking lots are kept illuminated throughout the day. As smart solutions evolve to keep track of space occupation, this will change. Sectors with no occupancies will be dimmed out. Similarly, office parking lots can be dimmed during work hours. Since every new car entering will be detected, appropriate sectors can be illuminated, and others kept at diffused setting.
  4. On-street parking: On-street parking will be the next sector targeted after off-street parking has reached a better state. Already, pilot projects are being implemented in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
  5. GPS-based directions: For both on-street and off-street directions, GPS-based systems will undoubtedly be the best solution. The user will be able to get real time directions and guidance to the space. It won’t be just a route drawn on a map, but rather arrows pointing towards the possible destinations. However, getting GPS connection inside parking lots is currently difficult. It will take lots of innovation and technological wizardry to achieve.
  6. Better governance and traffic jam avoidance: Parking space data, especially weekdays and parking times, can be useful for both local governing bodies and citizens. For local government bodies, patterns of high and low parking density could result in varying tariff rates to discourage customers from using cars on certain days, thereby reducing traffic congestion. Variable tariff rates could also encourage carpooling. For the citizens, the availability data will help them plan better when going to a particular destination. They could opt for public transport when parking is at a premium. Historic trends will work in the favor of citizen, as well.

Let’s park hassle-free

Smart parking spaces have captured the imagination of entrepreneurs and business folks alike. The market is heavily under-serviced, and innovations have been rare. However, the potential is huge, and companies that make their move in this space will be forces to reckon with. As a part of various smart cities initiatives, both on- and off-street smart parking spaces have an open space waiting for them.

Learn more

For cities to remain relevant, they have to become smarter, leaner, and more connected. The IoT is helping the world’s largest cities to do this, on a grand scale, and at a phenomenal rate. IoT and Enterprise Asset Management capabilities can be put to good use in a variety of city and state projects including the creation of intelligent dashboards to help city officials improve the coordination and management of events – such as better traffic management and better public safety support; to support street lighting operations; and to improve the maintenance, energy consumption and space management across public sector buildings.

To learn how IoT can help you obtain greater efficiency through smarter asset management, please read our white paper, Understanding the Value of Enterprise Asset Management.

Written by: Devavrat Kulkarni

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