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Valet Parking, the App

New technology finds closest parking spots, best price


Imagine entering your office address and a price range into a GPS or mobile device just before your morning commute, and getting directions to the appropriately priced parking spot closest to your office, reserved just for you.

That “smart parking” scenario may be just a click away, thanks to the efforts of Christos Cassandras, a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering and of systems engineering, and graduate student Yanfeng Geng (ENG’13). In early August, the research team completed its first live test of a preliminary version of a smart parking system in the lower level of the garage at 730 Commonwealth Ave.

In the test, a ceiling-mounted sensor network monitored parking spot activity and incoming reservation requests. Before entering the garage, a smartphone-equipped driver submitted an ID number and reservation request through a website. After validating the ID, the system updated a light indicator on the spot (and on a map displayed on the website) from green (unoccupied) to yellow (reserved), and when the driver parked, to red (occupied). When the driver left the spot, the system switched the light back to green and charged a parking fee to the driver’s account.

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“In any major city center, about 30 percent of cars are cruising around looking for parking, wasting time,” says Cassandras. “They spend an average of 7.8 minutes, according to one estimate—and then there is the gas and increasing air pollution and traffic congestion. Our system could reduce all those problems and give cities a powerful traffic management tool.”

The project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant aimed at developing systems that reconfigure themselves in response to unexpected events and fast-changing conditions. The BU team is one of five pursuing ways to create “smart cities”—cities that exploit wireless networking, collect information from distributed sensors, and make decisions about transportation, communication, power use, and other complexities of urban life. Cassandras and Geng’s first paper on their project, slated to appear in Proceedings of the 2011 IEEE Multi-Conference on Systems and Control, was selected as one of four finalists for the September conference’s Best Student Paper Award.

By allowing drivers to reserve parking spots, the research team’s technology improves on current “parking guidance” technology, which typically provides only the number of available parking spots at a nearby lot.

“The reservation component is critical as it overcomes the dilemma of whether or not to try to find a better spot,” says Jonathan J. Jensen, director of business development at BU’s Technology Development office. “It also eliminates chasing the same spot by multiple drivers, which would create additional congestion and waste. This type of system could also create a marketplace for parking spaces not feasible today, one that includes dynamic pricing and the ability to sell or reserve individual private parking spaces.”

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While the live test used ultrasound to find available parking spots, future garage parking spots may be equipped with technology that mechanically prevents access to vehicles without the proper ID. The researchers envision a citywide GPS system that reserves the nearest available parking spot within a specified price range. Managing hundreds of simultaneous requests for vacant parking spots throughout a city, it would direct subscribers from their present location to the parking spot closest (and if desired, cheapest) to their destination.

The researchers have filed a provisional patent application—the first step in the patenting process—and they are exploring commercialization opportunities with Technology Development and participating in BU’s Sustainable Neighborhood Lab, an effort to improve the sustainability and quality of life of Boston neighborhoods such as the Back Bay.

“The SNL will provide us with a test bed in a real-world setting,” says Jensen. “That could accelerate development of the technology and help us to attract partners that can eventually bring the technology to market.”

Mark Dwortzan can be reached at dwortzan@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Valet Parking, the App

  • Fritz on 08.30.2011 at 12:15 pm

    Sounds like an awesome idea, the start of something huge. The only missing factir is that people could leave spaces in the time it would take for a person to reserve one and get to it. But if there are enough spaces, not such a big deal.

    Hopefully the BPD doesn’t think the indicators are bombs like the Mooninite scandal!

    • Aaron Charles L'Heureux on 08.30.2011 at 1:39 pm

      I think we can all agree that there are never enough spaces in Boston :P

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