By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the May 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Technology continues to permeate virtually every aspect of facilities,even those areas that have been traditionally low-tech are beingtransformed. Among recent additions to those aspects making the leap tohigh-tech are parking systems. No longer just concrete, asphalt, andpaper tickets, many parking lots and garages are featuring intelligent,self managing innovations.
As with many facility technologies, the major advancesin parking systems were first seen in Asia. For instance, parking lotsin Shanghai and Hong Kong have, for years, had sensors in parkingspaces that detect if a space is occupied. This allows for visualdisplays at the parking lot entrances to show visitors which areas haveempty spaces. With this technology, those looking to park theirvehicles no longer need to drive around searching for a space. They canalso get in and out of the lot faster, which helps to increase usersatisfaction.
The sensor technology has made it to theUnited States with advanced parking systems like the one being used atBaltimore/Washington International Airport. There, drivers can quicklyand easily find an open space by viewing availability on a status boardat the entrance of the airport’s parking garage.
The latestversions of these systems have taken this concept to a new level withautomatic license plate recognition (ALPR) technology. ALPR uses videocameras and special software that can read license plates throughoptical character recognition (OCR). The camera takes a picture of thecar, and special software analyzes the image to find the license plateand read the number. ALPR can recognize a plate in a fraction of asecond in light or dark conditions—even when the car is moving.
ALPR technology is now mature and very accurate. The most modernsystems combine day and night cameras, an OCR processing chip, andlighting in a single unit.
With an ALPR equipped parking garage, the systemreads the license plate on a car as it enters the garage and logs thedate and time. When that car exits, another ALPR camera reads thelicense plate, the parking duration is calculated, and the driver ischarged accordingly. This eliminates the need to use parking tickets totrack the time in the lot. (In garages where drivers pay in advance,they punch in their license plate number, and the system calculates thefee.)
One advantage of using this type of system is that thefacility manager (fm) knows what vehicles are in the lot and when eachenters and leaves. This can eliminate some of the traditionalchallenges of parking management, such as the lost ticket scam in whichpeople park for several days, but claim they parked for one day andlost their ticket. Rather than pay what they really owe, they pay thelost ticket fee, which is usually the rate for a single day. With ALPR,there is no doubt about when the car entered, and there is a digitalphoto with a date and time stamp as proof.
Also with thistechnology, no one has to audit the lot looking for possible scammers;the database holds all the information. However, if there is a need toaudit a large parking lot, the fm can have a mobile ALPR system mountedon a vehicle that can then be driven through the lot to scan thelicense plates of parked cars. This approach replaces manual audits,which can take hours to perform.
ALPR is also used inside large parking lots to aid in management. Somelots set up ALPR checkpoints where license plates are read to keeptrack of how many cars are in the lot and how many are in each section.This generates an accurate count of vehicles in each section, and it isalso a great help when a customer forgets where he or she parked.Instead of driving around looking for the vehicle, parking managers cansimply look up the plate number in the ALPR system and see the sectionin which the plate was last scanned.
In lots where parkerspay by the month, ALPR can act as an access control system,automatically scanning plates as vehicles enter and allowing in onlythose who have paid. An ALPR checkpoint can also be used to detectunauthorized parkers who trespass on sections of the lot that arereserved.
In congested urban areas, another technology hasbeen changing parking garage operations. Robotic parking garages stackvehicles in a rack like boxes in a warehouse. Cars entering this typeof garage are driven onto a large, flat platform that is handled by thegarage’s robotic mechanisms. That is the last time a person needs totouch the vehicle; the system does the rest, taking the car up to anopen slot and sliding it in. When the parker pays, the system returnsthe car to the lobby by way of the same robotic system.
Thereare significant advantages to robotic parking. The first is that it cansqueeze far more cars into the same space as a conventional garagedoes. Because there are no drive ramps or passenger elevators, therobotic garage can require only about 60% of the ground footprint of aconventional garage with the same capacity.
Another benefitis reduced operational costs. With a robotic parking system, one personcan manage a large garage. In addition to staff reductions, thecleaning, repainting, and resealing that is required on conventionalgarages is significantly reduced. The elimination of passengerelevators also reduces ongoing maintenance costs.
The factthat there are no vehicles being driven around in a robotic parkingsystem brings additional benefits. Because there is no exhaust in thistype of garage, the facility can be located underground or in enclosedareas that would otherwise require massive air exhaust and carbondioxide detection systems.
Since there are not yet any“Jetson style” flying cars many of us have been waiting for, we’ll allhave to deal with parking challenges for the foreseeable future. Andwith the number of vehicles on the roads expected to increaseconsiderably over the next few decades, many fms will need to findcreative solutions to accommodate parking needs. ALPR technology androbotic parking garages may be able to help ease the task.
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is acontributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies inFacility Management textbook. He works for System DevelopmentIntegration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving theperformance, quality, and reliability of client business throughtechnology