Parking is the boring, often maddening, offshoot of driving. No one — save that friend of yours who always lucks upon the perfect spot on Friday nights — tells romantic stories about squeezing between two SUVs. Nor do musicians write songs about taking long trips around the parking lot of a big box store while searching for a space.
But parking is gaining some glamour as the self-driving future nears. In fact, some of the recent disruptors of parking payments and related digital services might be facing the threat of being disrupted themselves — though it remains way too early to be certain.
Volkswagen Parking Test
Look to Germany for one example of this. The Volkswagen Group recently announced that it is testing “autonomous parking” at Hamburg Airport.
“Based on a car park map, the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche vehicles navigate their way to a parking space on their own,” Volkswagen said. “Orientation is provided for them by simple pictorial markers installed in the multi-story car park.”
The autonomous vehicles rely on ultrasound, radar and cameras, along with mapping software, to determine where they are and where to go. The company expects its autonomous parking technology to reach consumers starting in the “next decade.”
Volkswagen gave no details about what its autonomous parking technology might mean for payments, but it is reasonable to expect that web-connected vehicles using it, or the app itself, would store driver payment data and conduct transactions.
U.S. drivers on average spent about $2,400 per year on parking fees, according to INRIX, with those costs significant higher in New York City and other metro areas. Those drivers also wasted an estimated $73 billion annually, and 17 hours per year, searching for parking spots.
Reducing those financial and time expenses has led to the rise of companies that employ digital technology to help drivers quickly find open parking spaces.
Among the newer entrants is GarageHop, a Seattle startup whose founder was inspired, in large part, by a study that reportedly showed as many as 40 percent of the parking spaces in local multifamily units were going unused. The company makes deals with apartment buildings to lease those spaces. Drivers pay a monthly fee to GarageHop — reportedly $80 — for the ability to find and access those spaces via a mobile app. Building owners also get a cut.
According to the Seattle Times, the city’s “recently passed law changing parking regulations — intended to make it easier to build housing without parking while making better use of existing parking — allows services like GarageHop to operate in more parts of the city.”
Other new companies, meanwhile, are focusing on developing services centered around autonomous parking. In Maryland, for instance, a company called STEER said its technology, which is still in development, will be able to turn cars into “partially-automated vehicles.”
The STEER process involves setting up drop-off destinations for drivers — say, at big, multiuse lots, or spaces for large apartment complexes — and then handing over parking duties to the STEER app and navigational technology. Returning drivers summon their cars again via that app. STEER said its technology would work with multiple car platforms. The company recently said it hopes to launch its system at Maryland parking lots next year.
Autonomous vehicles — and, by association, the parking and other technologies that will support them — still face a significant problem when it comes to consumer acceptance. Earlier this spring, AAA reported that its multi-year tracking study indicates that as many as 73 percent of drivers in the United States say they would be, as AAA put it, “too afraid” to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle.
But the money behind autonomous vehicles, and the research, partnerships and dreams of profit that has fueled, have created what appears to be an unstoppable trend. “It wouldn’t surprise me if by the end of 2019 we have autonomous vehicles readily part of people’s lives,” says Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday (June 26).
That may come off as the optimism of the leader of one of the world’s leading tech centers, but this much is clear: Parking, and payments and digital technology that support that relatively mundane activity, will have to keep pace.