Someday in the not-so-distant-future, when our cars can drive themselves, looking for a parking spot will seem like an antiquated problem. In the meantime, drivers spend around 70 million hours a year searching for parking–wasting time, jacking up carbon emissions, and making traffic worse for everyone else. As many as a third of the cars on city streets at any given time time may be looking for parking spots.
But what if your car’s navigation system could lead you directly to an open parking space? New technology from Ford does exactly that: As cars drive through a parking lot or down a street, they automatically scan for open spots, creating a crowdsourced map that other cars can use to avoid circling the block for 20 minutes.
“Parking is one of those things that people just sort of seem to accept, and we think that there’s got to be a better way,” says Mike Tinskey, director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure at Ford. “We looked at real time data of how long it took people to find parking spots in all the major cities in U.S., and we were surprised that such a small percentage of people find a parking spot immediately.”
The new tech uses small ultrasonic sensors that are already on bumpers to help people parallel park. When the sensors are activated, they can quickly detect open spots. “It essentially maps out that parking area as it’s driving through,” Tinskey says. “And then on the other end of the cloud is essentially an app, and it shows the parking lot you’re interested in, when it was last swept, and the probability of the spaces being open or not open based on that vehicle.”
This isn’t the first attempt to help drivers find open spaces, but it’s more affordable and scalable than other alternatives. Companies like Streetline install wireless sensors in pavement, and can notify drivers of open spots via an app. But the new infrastructure is expensive to build.
“If you’re going to add a few hundred dollars per parking space, you’re quickly into the billions if not the trillions of dollars to instrument all the parking spaces around the U.S. and Europe,” Tinskey says.
Others have experimented with apps that monitor smartphones to automatically sense when someone has parked somewhere–but it’s an imperfect system that also requires a large userbase to be useful. Why not use cars that are already on the street?
In addition to the data gleaned from each car’s sensor, Ford plans to map out where each Ford car parks and mine the larger dataset to better understand, for example, how likely a particular spot is to be free on 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Last year, the company successfully tested a prototype. Now the question is how the business model may work–since the maps will be most accurate the more cars are involved, they’re also considering collaborating with other manufacturers.
Ford hopes the new tech might appeal to younger city-dwellers who are increasingly less likely to drive. “We looked at the reasons they don’t drive, and parking was high on the list,” says Tinskey.