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Parking your car the wireless way
Tickets via mobile
For those drivers who find parking enough of a drag without having to schlep to the ticket machine in the rain, wireless technology can now take some of the pain out of the process.
It's a neat concept - pay for your slot from the comfort of your vehicle - but there is a divergence between the Wi-Fi and cellular approaches to parking spaces I discovered in a small UK market town last week. A garage forecourt had a parking space marked out for 'Wi-Fi' and hotspot advertising signs up, which seemed a cool idea. But the local train station now allows drivers to pay for parking from their mobile phone. Not only cool, but cost effective.
The high-tech station parking system is offered by Parkmobile, which has already had some successes with local government authority usage for parking permits and charges. This deployment is initially two medium-sized stations operated as part of the South West passenger services in the UK, with an intention to roll out to larger stations after a short trial period.
Both stations are very busy at half-hourly intervals with regular and ad hoc passengers hurrying to commute into London, and the last thing most passengers want is a delay while queuing at ticket machines in the rush to catch a train. That's where paying by mobile comes in. Drivers can park their car, run for the train and then make the phone call while catching their breath on the train.
The system is based around an RFID transponder card that is displayed permanently in the car like a permit. It also has visible barcode, to allow for parking services using a barcode reader, but for preference an RFID tag reader reads the card. The barcode is almost like the legacy fallback of raised letters and digits on credit card for zip-zap machines. The identity on barcode and tag is tied to the car registration and the driver's mobile phone number.
Driver not present
The parking period is initiated by a call from a mobile phone. This takes about 30 seconds. The bill is paid by the method that was set up when the transponder card was first applied for. This can be credit/debit card or direct debit with a weekly or monthly itemised invoice, which can be viewed online. Sadly, there is currently no way to have the charge added to the phone bill, but that could be a problem if a driver parks, heads for a train and then has insufficient funds on a pre-paid phone card. Not so much 'cardholder not present' as 'driver not present'.
The parking period is terminated by further phone call. If the user forgets to terminate the parking, the Parkmobile system usually defaults to the end of the parking period, just as would happen in a pay-and-display car park and lost the ticket. However, for those paying per day at railway stations, the system keeps charging the day rate until terminated. This is good for extended or unanticipated stays, but costs could build for forgetful drivers.
As an optional service, the user can be sent a text message every two hours while they're parked. At 20p per message, this is likely to depend on parking charges and the cost of forgetfulness, but it's an indication of where the service might head.
Car park attendants read the transponder card using a handheld wireless device, which validates the parking using a GPRS link to a central database, and the attendant knows there and then whether to issue a ticket. This type of system should reduce the prospect of errors, and reduce the costs and time associated with checking tickets, so it's easy to see why those responsible for managing parking would be interested in the system.
Parkmobile is looking at alternative payment methods. Pre-paid or at least guaranteed payment is important in this scenario, so Parkmobile is investigating pre-paid parking cards. There's also the potential to link this to other transport-related charging systems. This could be driver vehicle related, such as congestion charging and toll collection, or perhaps even more enticing to for integrated transport policies, linked to public transport smart payment systems, such as London's Oystercard.
I always thought technology could address the problem of searching for change for a parking meter, but I didn't expect it to be using a combination of RFID card, SIM card and pre-paid scratch card. And I didn't expect it to let me validate my ticket while moving away from the vehicle, but this does seem a sensible approach, and a pragmatic use of mobile technology.