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Smartphone solution for parking performance

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2017
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BMW's Smartwatch
Summoning a parked car using BMW's Smartwatch.

Automated parking offers optimised space utilisation and fewer damage complaints as David Crawford discovers.

As cars become smarter, technology designed to make parking them more straightforward is developing in parallel. In turn, it is becoming clear that the places where vehicles spend much of their time will need to respond – more comprehensively than by supporting established aids such as smartphone-based parking location and reservation, or payment for time used.

Parking providers are already eyeing developments that could ultimately transform them from being passive recipients to intelligent hosts of their four-wheeled guests, with the automakers in the driving seat of change. Among these is Mercedes-Benz which, in 2016, introduced as an option in its globally available E-Class saloon, a remote-control variant of its existing Active Parking Assist dashboard aid.

Using an array of ultrasonic sensors, the earlier version makes possible the identification of a suitable space as the driver passes. It then works with the vehicle’s on-board electronic power steering to navigate it in automatically, while the driver continues to manage other functions.

The more advanced smartphone-operated Remote Parking Pilot app helps drivers to make full use of spaces that are restricted in size, for example in end-on configurations. These can make it difficult for the occupants - particularly those with mobility problems – to easily enter or leave a vehicle once it is parked. There is also the risk of damage to the body or paintwork of the car and its neighbours.

The new app allows the driver to disembark, leaving the system to manoeuvre the vehicle automatically into the selected parking space. Automatic transmission, if installed, controls the speed and gear changes.

The driver must stand within 3m of the vehicle to monitor the process; reversing it involves remote unlocking before using the app, communication is via Bluetooth, rendering the provision of Wi-Fi access within the garage unnecessary.

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A schematic of the Université de Valenciennes’ test site
A schematic of the Université de Valenciennes' test site at the Jonas carpark where the characters in red and blue are the last four in the identifying MAC addresses of parking bay sensors and the yellow circles mark the locations of data collecting and communicating antennae.

One concern for garage operators, as the technology becomes commonly used, will be the provision of adequate safe standing space for drivers and their passenger loads, including young children. Pedestrian congestion could result from a number of cars being parked at the same time.

In June 2015 another automaker, BMW, announced its 2016 Series sensor-based remote control parking feature. Drivers can harness this to manoeuvre their cars in or out of spaces, using a securely-connected keyfob with a touchscreen, and effect a controlled stop if necessary.

Going forward, BMW’s next-stage is the Remote Valet Parking Assistant, an early version of which has been showcased on the company’s i3 research vehicle at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It is designed to work in both single- and multi-storey garages.

Controlled by a specially-developed app downloaded onto a smartwatch being worn by the disembarked driver, it combines scanning by on-vehicle lasers with a site plan produced by the garage operator to create a virtual map of the interior. This avoids the need for technologies such as GPS positioning.

 It then uses the resulting locational information to effect the independent navigation of the car into a bay, switch off the engine and lock it. The research vehicle is equipped with the necessary on-board processing units and algorithms to determine its precise location in a carpark and monitor the surrounding environment.

The ultimate scenario envisaged in this, and similar, initiatives is that of a driver being able to pull up at the entrance to a parking garage, activate a smartphone or smartwatch app, and then send the unoccupied car in and onward. Guided by its on-board sensors, it would move around a multi-storey building, floor-by-floor and fully autonomously, until it detected a free space in which to park.

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A parking garage in Munich, Germany
A parking garage in Munich, Germany; how costly will it be to adapt structures such as this.

It would brake automatically on detecting a hazard. The driver would reverse the procedure for retrieval. 

Communication with the vehicle could be via wireless links embedded in the parking garage infrastructure, which BMW believes would not need expensive modifications. The company has yet to publish a timeframe for the technology to be available in a production car. In the Hauts de France region of northern France, which has a strong focus on transport technology development, researchers at the Université de Valenciennes are working within the SYstem For smart Road Applications (SYFRA) project on a series of initiatives. The aim is to optimise the use of parking facilities through more efficient allocation and reallocation of bays, while - again -  minimising the impact on the infrastructure. The researchers are using the Université’s Jonas surface parking area as a test ground.

One team is exploring the potential for a V2V communications-based vacancy alerting system. This would enable a car that is leaving a space to indicate, automatically, the availability in real time to other vehicles that are arriving and thereby minimise the length of time drivers are searching and each bay is unoccupied.

Another team is working with French technology company Hikob on the use of wireless acquisition technology for the rapid collection and communication of occupancy data from energy-autonomous, in-bay sensors that do not need recharging for the length of their working lives. It claims that these will take less than 10 minutes to install on site. A wired solution, said the Université’s Professor Sylvain Lecomte, would have been “too restrictive”.  

Industry views

As the available technologies grow more sophisticated, the global parking world is looking closely at the implications for its buildings. A spokesperson for German-based parking specialist Apcoa, which manages 860,000 parking spaces across 15 European countries, told ITS International that “indoor navigation for carparks is definitely a topic for us.

“We are currently talking to several technology providers from outside the automotive sector who are offering us solutions that would cover any hardware needed for equipping the infrastructure, the software and the use of smartphone apps as interfaces with drivers. In the near future, we are planning trials to gather information on how different systems could work, as well as on their customer acceptability. We see strong potential, particularly in combination with the availability of pre-booking, for improving our overall customer service.”

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Mercedes-Benz' Remote Parking Pilot technology
Mercedes-Benz' Remote Parking Pilot technology in operation inside a parking garage.

 At industry-wide level, the US National Parking Association has yet to publish guidance on the issue; though board member Alex Israel, vice president of company member Inrix – and founder of ParkMe, which Inrix acquired in 2015 – spoke to ITS International. “The ultimate aim,” he said, “should be to make parking an integral element of the navigation process – and not a lengthy one.”

He foresees congestion issues that will be not only internal - “though these will be resolvable over time”- but also external to garages. He instances numbers of future autonomous vehicles heading for the same location. 

Again, the European Parking Association has yet to produce detailed policy recommendations. But, in its ‘Parking 20:20’ vision document, the British Parking Association, makes a specific commitment to collaborate with developments and trials of autonomous and self-parking vehicles to enable ‘appropriate facilities’.

A spokesperson elaborated to ITS International: “If a vehicle is being programmed to carry out a minimum risk manoeuvre, it must be able to identify a safe spot and understand parking terms and conditions.” She agreed that providing somewhere safe for drivers and passengers to stand while the car parks itself could be complicated in a busy garage.

Again, despite BMW’s confidence in minimal infrastructural impacts, the costs of adapting existing parking structures “may be vast, and cannot be undertaken by operators immediately.” Finally, “it is essential that the technology improves the parking environment and does not impair it – for example, by causing congestion because of numbers of cars moving at very low speeds and stopping at identified hazards.”

On the plus side, she saw projected innovations as enabling the denser storage of vehicles and giving drivers the benefit of a more flexible, on-demand system. But the BPA insists that the industry needs to be involved in developments from the outset to ‘ensure the right policies and products’.

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