In the ’60s, The Jetsons, a cartoon about a family living in the future, featured a flying car that folded down into a briefcase when not in use. It is unlikely that we will ever see that solution to parking become a reality, but many other sci-fi books and films have predicted self-driving vehicles, and we know they are coming because they kind of exist today.
While brands like Tesla have pushed the boundaries of driver assistance to become a version of self-driving, including parking the vehicle automatically, currently the parking infrastructure has not really kept up.
But we know that cannot continue, and the reality is that as transport technology evolves, parking solutions will have to evolve as well. But what does that mean long term? Will we be able to arrive at a parking centre, get out and leave the car to it, then call it back to us when we want to leave? That seems like the dream approach to parking, but what does it need to make it happen?
There are two parts to that kind of service, the technology in the car park itself, and the technology within the car. For such a seamless experience, the two will need to work together, in that the vehicle must be able to drive autonomously, but also receive information about parking locations and when it should return to the entrance, from the car park itself. Both sets of technology actually exist today, not as refined as required for a reliable autonomous parking experience, but that is only a matter of time and development. But is it the right answer?
Right now, parking systems know which cars are parked where within the car park, this data is used to establish remaining capacities and so on, and while not universal, there are cars that can go off and park themselves when needed. So that future service is nearer than we think, but in the meantime what does car parking look like? Some may say that the future is already here without needing self-driving cars.
In Japan and some cities in the US, lift-based parking solutions offer a similar experience today. You arrive at a parking garage; your vehicle is pulled into a cubicle which is then lifted away. When you want to return to your car, the system finds the right cubicle garage and then returns it to the entrance, so you can drive away.
There are advantages to this approach, without the need for ramps to drive up and down to reach the parking, more cars can be parked in a given space. Because no one actually enters the building where vehicles are stored, it is also incredibly secure too. These systems are being constantly refined, and in the future, it is likely such a garage could be completely automated. With the advantages of space and security, is that more likely to be the future of high-density parking? If we look at other factors, it may well be.
Cities are increasingly looking to decrease car numbers, opening up spaces instead for social areas, encouraging cycling and other more environmentally friendly approaches to transportation. This is unlikely to change even with the widespread adoption of electric cars, so parking will naturally require large hubs with high-density parking that allows easy access to walks, bikes or public transport to central areas. To get an idea for the future of parking, we can look at what technology best fits this scenario.
It is likely that these robotic lift-type solutions that pack more vehicles into each parking area fit the needs of city designers better than any more traditional multistorey or underground system that requires ramps and so on, whether the cars are operated by drivers or park themselves. There are other things that are in favour of this approach too.
Architects are under pressure to soften the appearance of buildings in cities across the world, to create spaces that have more light and elegance. A more compact multistorey space, or an underground alternative with only one small entrance space is easier to disguise with cladding, colour and other design tricks that much larger car parks that have ramps and so on.
There is also the matter of technology. While there are cars that can drive themselves in a limited way now, and numbers are only going to increase, they are not all cars, and may never be. Holden stopped making cars in 2020, but in 20 years’ time, there will still be Holden cars driving on the roads. Those cars can never use autonomous parking systems, but they can use the robotic systems that take your car away and bring it back via a crane lift. They can use them today, and they can use them in the future.
Machine learning to park
So, the dream of a car swooshing away into its own spot automatically could well be the future. However, it is more likely to be carried there by a machine rather than drive itself. But not all parking is in cities with integrated parking solutions ran by the local authorities. For parking elsewhere, things will develop alongside vehicle technology, and there is one area that must advance for the future of the automotive industry itself, never mind parking. That is electric car charging.
Right now, charging is a bit of a mess: different speeds depending on the charger installation, there is no real cohesive system and owners often have to wrestle with a number of different apps to access charging networks on the go. Then there are the mechanics of charging, a heavy cable that has to be plugged in, account information and payment input before the car can be charged. As with phones, wireless charging is the solution, it removes much of the hassle and fail points for a better experience. But what would that look like in cars?
The obvious answer is charging areas embedded into the road or parking space, with a vehicle stopping on top of it automatically charging. There are hurdles to this, it would mean an end to the various account systems currently used to access charge networks, and instead have something tied to the vehicle itself. However, this kind of solution offers easy and efficient charging without the hassle we have today.
This would also require new technology for parking. For instance, our robotic car parks could have a charge loop in each container or cubicle, so electric vehicles charge automatically once they are taken away for storage. Likewise, on-road parking at parking meters could include chargers under each space.
This makes the charging process so much less hassle but allows for electric car charging without having to install endless charge stations in streets, and avoiding all the cables that the current system will need. Given the sheer number of electric cars that will be in operation in just a decade or so, and one cable per car, you can see how much an alternative is required.
But while technology will continue to drive the parking experience, and in cities and communities the need for clean, open spaces will change where we park and what that parking looks like, there will still be areas where parking sits outside of these grand designs. At its heart, a parking space is somewhere to store a vehicle while you go off and do something, and that need is not going to change. Large robotic parking systems in cities may appear in numbers, but they are not going to be the norm in areas with a smaller traffic flow or specific needs.
What we may see, and it is happening now, is that entrepreneurs and visionaries can find ways to provide a more selective parking solution on a smaller scale, that caters to a very specific need in a specific location. Not only are these services essential and in high demand, but they can be a source of income for anyone who has access to suitable parking space. With more cars than ever on the roads, and with a shift to electric not changing that, the future of parking looks to be heading in multiple directions.
The centralised systems operated in cities and other large communities will follow an approach that minimises the space required and seek to integrate such facilities into an overall plan for the area. However, in some areas where there is no overall control of parking operations, the idea that you can rent a parking spot from a single person makes sense. Some people have space, others need that space, and as more cars are used, that space is in ever higher demand.
This is an edited extract of Parking Made Easy – Making Life Easier by Daniel Battaglia.