Stanley Robotics autonomous parking robot

The future of car parking

Image credit: Stanley Robotics

Car parking takes up valuable space in city centres and can be a source of frustration, pollution and congestion. However, new technologies are emerging that may change the way we park – or get rid of parking altogether.

While some of us take enormous pride in swiftly reversing a car back into a tight spot, most people find the act of finding a space and parking a car tedious, if not also stressful. Why not let a robot do it for you?

Outside a shopping centre in the Colombian city of Medellin, your correspondent recently watched a man manoeuvre his car into what at first appeared to be a garage on the ground floor of a non-descript high-rise. However, once the driver left his car, something rather unusual happened. The garage door closed and a pallet slid underneath his vehicle. Then, it was lifted up and out of sight, to be stored wherever space was available in the 20 or so storeys above. Once customers had finished their shopping, they would come back to the automated parking building and have their car returned to them on the ground floor, ready to drive away.  

Car parks take up a vast amount of space in our towns and cities, and, with 68 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in urban environments by the year 2050, there’s going to be ever more need for space to store their vehicles. One option is to simply build more multi-storey car parks and open-air parking lots. The alternative might be to find ways of packing them closer together. And robotic parking might just offer a way of doing this.  

In recent years, a handful of firms across the world have brought to market a new generation of automated multi-storey parking systems, just like the Colombian design described above. These systems may use pallets, which slide underneath a parked car and lift it up to a free space in the building where they ‘sit’ on racks. Alternatively, the cars are lifted up by independent ‘arms’ that shift them into a free space somewhere in the building and deposit them on a concrete floor.

For the end user, systems like these make parking a lot easier. You simply leave your car in a portal at the building’s entrance and let the machine do the parking for you. But the benefits go further.

Yoni Inbar is the VP of sales for Israeli firm Unitronics, whose U-Tron system holds close to 50 per cent of the automated parking market in the US. Inbar explains that, by automating stacking, U-Tron eliminates all that wasted space needed for ramps in normal multi-storeys, while also packing cars much closer together. What’s more, energy bills are lower since no one needs light to walk around the building – they just wait for their car at the entrance.

Automated multi-storeys are fine when you have a defined structure to store cars in, but what about all those large, open-air car parks at airports, train stations and out-of-town supermarkets?

French company Stanley Robotics is on a mission to make better use of this kind of space. The firm, founded by three experts in autonomous vehicles, has designed a kind of robot valet service that has been trialled and deployed at airports in Paris and Lyon. When drivers arrive, they simply leave their cars in a specially designed garage by the terminal entrance. Once the human has left, ‘Stanley’ takes over.

The robot is a sort of pallet truck which lifts vehicles up before moving them around an open-air parking lot. It shifts cars into tightly packed blocks, maximising space. Stanley’s system is linked to the passenger’s air ticket – so once their flight is about to land, the robot locates their vehicle and returns it to the garage for collection.  

“On our first trials at [Paris airport] Roissy, it was funny because some passengers did not realise that a robot had moved their car and would scratch their heads on return because the car was facing in a different position to the way they had left it,” says Stéphane Evanno, the firm’s COO.

Besides saving time for passengers, Evanno explains the benefits for airports. With the number of fliers increasing annually, there’s ever greater demand for parking at airports. By using a system like the one Stanley Robotics has developed, “they can increase car parking capacity by up to 50 per cent in the same amount of space”. This translates into much higher revenues from parking too – and the firm says its products could work in other similar environments such as railway stations too.

Are people happy to hand over their cars? It’s one thing to hand your keys over to a human valet, but are drivers ready to let robots park their pride and joy?

Stanley’s Evanno gives an emphatic yes: “During our trial at Roissy, we reported over 90 per cent satisfaction among users – mainly because of the time saved looking for space.”

Inbar at Unitronics has found that clients actually prefer automated parking. “It’s much safer than normal parking – there’s no chance of accidents and you don’t have to worry that someone is going to scrape your car.” He also says customers feel safer waiting for their vehicle to be delivered in a well-lit ground floor space: “We’ve all seen horror movies where someone is walking alone in a basement parking lot late at night.”

When describing his trips around Britain, travel writer Paul Theroux paraphrases Samuel Johnson to say that a man who is tired of London is tired of looking for a parking space.

Not only is hunting for somewhere to leave one’s vehicle tiring, it’s also bad for our health. As cars circulate city streets looking for somewhere to parallel park into, they contribute significantly to air pollution and congestion. Indeed, studies have found that, on average, 30 per cent of cars circulating in American downtowns are driven by people just looking for somewhere to leave their vehicle.

While the robotic designs described in the previous article are effective for specially designated buildings or lots, an enormous amount of parking happens more haphazardly – squeezed onto the sides of city streets and outside small shops where automated solutions wouldn’t really work. However, a new generation of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions might just solve the problem.

“Imagine a hotel chain that didn’t have real-time room occupancy data. And, can you imagine that hotel only accepting coins and notes for payment? The hotel would soon be out of business, yet this is how parking is still run today in many of the most advanced regions of the world.”

That’s according to Yury Birchenko, the CTO of Nwave, a UK firm which is one of a small number of new IoT companies trying to tackle the parking issue. Birchenko has lived and worked in some of the most high-tech areas of the world, from London to Silicon Valley, yet is constantly amazed by how outdated our current approach to parking is, with its dependence on cash payments and universally loathed parking attendants. For him, the solution is to use IoT and bring parking into the 21st century.  

Nwave has developed an IoT solution using thin sensors (around the height of a 1p coin) that can be installed on parking spaces in city streets. Birchenko says the sensors can last up to ten years and communicate over long ranges – most cities would not need more than one basestation, thanks to the company’s innovations in LPWAN. Once deployed, Nwave’s sensors can monitor whether the space above it is in use and relay this information back to a central hub where the information can be used in a variety of ways.

In locations where Nwave has been installed (including London, Coventry and Reading), drivers can use a smartphone app to find where there are spaces in real-time and navigate to them – thereby reducing the amount of circulation as drivers ‘blindly’ search for a parking spot. Then, once they’ve parked, the sensor can connect to their phone via Bluetooth and tell who’s parked where and for how long.

Birchenko says Nwave recently partnered with Visa and is in the process of developing a smartphone app that will automatically charge people based on the amount of time they have spent in a space – which will also allow drivers to monitor how much they’re spending in real time. Since we can pay for Tube tickets and order fast food using our smartphones, why not do the same with parking?

Of course, the kind of ‘big data’ Nwave and companies like it produce would also be useful for city authorities, helping urban planners understand where and when people park their cars. This would allow for the development of much more sophisticated parking policies – perhaps letting them introduce ‘dynamic pricing’, whereby prices rise and fall depending on demand, or decommissioning parking spaces which the data shows are never actually used.

For Birchenko, “there are countless studies that show parking in today’s cities is a big problem”, but, “with the right data, these problems can be solved”.

A 2016 study by WSP-Parsons Brinckerhoff and Farrells found that, were all central London’s car parks to be removed, there would be up to 15 per cent more land available for development or green space. For much of the last century, the idea of removing car parks would have been unthinkable, yet recent advances in autonomous vehicles (AVs) have sparked excitement about a world free of parking lots.

The vision goes like this. In the not-too-distant future, fleets of AVs will roam city streets picking people up and dropping them off wherever they need to go. Eventually, there’ll be less and less need for private car parking – instead, people will just order an AV in the same way they order Uber and Lyfft taxis today. For the most optimistic predictions, this could herald a future where parking lots are turned into sports fields and multi-storeys converted into housing.  

Sarah-Jayne Williams is the director of smart mobility at Ford of Europe. “Looking forward to autonomous vehicles, Ford and other companies will initially use them to provide transportation as a service,” she explains. “You’ll hail a ride from an app which will drop you at your destination, and those vehicles won’t necessarily need spaces to park in city centres.”

Will people really want to stop owning their own cars, instead preferring to use shared transport? Quite possibly. In much of the developed world, rates of car ownership have either levelled off or even begun to decline in recent decades, and consumers have shown they’re comfortable with the notion of a ‘sharing economy’ where they never need to physically own goods (or deal with fixing them either). There are numerous carpooling companies offering their services to urbanites around the world, and there’s been an explosion of bicycle ‘borrowing’ schemes too. It makes sense that using AV services will become popular, too.

However, Williams sounds a note of caution. All those AVs will need to be cleaned and, assuming they’re electric, will also need to be charged.

“We’ll also need a place to service the fleet,” she points out, and one way of achieving that could be through re-use of the parking infrastructure that already exists. She also notes that there are plenty of obstacles to this kind of scenario and some cities could restrict the use of AVs altogether if they are seen to compete with public transport, for instance.  

Another drawback is highlighted by UCL’s Richard Allsop, a professor of transport studies. “While a system of demand-responsive autonomous vehicles is fine when you have time to prepare for a trip, they won’t be suitable for those unforeseen journeys that private cars are still so useful for” – be that a trip to hospital or an impulse drive to simply go and get some air. It will therefore take a long time before many drivers are convinced by the idea of giving up their own personal vehicle – and they will continue to need space to store their vehicles.

And then there’s the question of whether cities should be encouraging AVs at all. Civil engineer Hermann Knoflacher, professor emeritus at the Vienna University of Technology, has long been a critic of private transport in cities. He cites a simulation whereby pedestrians could experience what it would be like if autonomous vehicles were available to drive them around (the study used cars driven by humans, but was intended to see what would happen if people could order lifts in this way). The outcome was a significant rise in the number of people choosing to travel in ‘private’ vehicles – which therefore added to urban congestion.

For Knoflacher and critics of the car, introducing AVs misses the point – the real goal should be to have fewer private vehicles on city streets altogether.  

Car parks have, for better or worse, become one of the major features of urban spaces in the past 100 years, but what of their future? Improved parking technologies will certainly be important for the time being, especially as the size of urban populations expands. However, the long-term impact of autonomous vehicles, as well as the growing numbers of cities that want to reduce the number of private car journeys altogether, may mean parking goes the same way as the horse and stable.

Space is the place

Should we park parking altogether?

One thing that many parking solutions have in common is that they continue to support the notion of driving in the urban environment. However, the University of Vienna’s Professor Hermann Knoflacher is sceptical of anything that encourages driving – and parking – in cities.

“We are victims of the car” he says, citing air pollution, accidents and other problems introduced by private vehicles. Professor Knoflacher has long been an influential voice in the Austrian capital’s urban planning, where he has contributed to public policy over the last few decades. The professor says over 70% of journeys in Vienna today are made using transport other than cars – one of the highest rates in the world. But it wasn’t always the way.

Through the introduction of a range of policies that made it harder to drive in the city centre, such as banning cars from driving in tram lanes, the city “changed the environment so people chose other modes of transport”, including the metro, bicycles and walking. One recent policy has involved reducing the price of an annual public transport ticket to 365EUR per year – or unlimited transport for 1EUR per day. Meanwhile parking in the city costs 2.10EUR per hour.

Vienna has emphasised putting humans in the centre of urban planning – perhaps part of the reason why the Austrian capital has topped a poll of cities with highest quality of life eight years in a row.

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