We could control satellites with our smartphones, yet when it comes to parking, we still rely on our grandparents’ search skills. New radar tech promises salvation: Smart technology firms in Berlin, San Francisco, and Bad Hersfeld are testing new ways to save our nerves and the environment.

Once circuit around the block. And another one. And another one. Anyone who’s ever tried to snare a parking space in Munich’s Schwabing, Cologne’s Suedstadt, or any other sought-after neighborhood on a Sunday night, will be familiar with this sense of impotent rage – usually, it’s targeted at other luckless searchers, already parked cars, or even the radio’s song selection, but actually we are part of the problem.

According to Marcus Zwick, Head of Innovative Mobility at Siemens, „a third of all traffic on urban roads is due to parking space searches.” His job is to change the status quo. Zwick’s secret weapon: sensors that register vacant parking spots in the city. Based on this system, drivers can simply use their sat nav to find the nearest empty space.

Although apps like Parku or Park2gether already offer similar information, these require users or parking space operators to actively report free spots. The Siemens model, on the other hand, is all about automation: its radar sensors are currently being put to the test on Berlin-Wilmersdorf’s Bundesallee thoroughfare.

The Siemens parkradar prototype
Siemens has started a pilot project in Berlin to test radar-based parking space detection.
Photo: Siemens AG

Meanwhile, other players on the market are coming up with their own systems. In addition to the tech giant, a nimble start-up from Starnberg in Bavaria, Cleverciti Systems, has perfected a similar approach – one that is already in use.

Equipped with their system, a parking lot in Bad Hersfeld, Hesse, simplifies parking with optical sensors mounted on street lamps. The sensors can tell which spots are occupied – and which spaces are still available.

From sensor to app to parking spot

So far, the resulting data is only used to display the overall number of vacancies on a board, but Cleverciti has already developed a matching app to take things further. “You can even state your vehicle size,” explains Cleverciti CEO Thomas Hohenacker: “The system will only display spaces your car can actually use.”

Naturally, it will take city-wide coverage for users to make the most of these apps. Yet this scenario might not be far off: At the time of writing, Cleverciti is in negotiations with several German municipalities.

Meanwhile, big data mecca California is already a step ahead: In Downtown San Francisco, the blacktop has been equipped with sensors that automatically inform a central data hub whether a space is free or in use. Here, too, a handy app points drivers towards zones with available parking spots, including municipal parking garages.

“Now, the average driver spends 43 percent less time on parking space searches,” according to the project’s evaluation document. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions in the covered areas have decreased by 30 percent.

To enhance the welcome effect, San Francisco has introduced a further parameter. Parking fees fluctuate according to availability: While sought-after areas are more expensive, people willing to walk a few paces can save money – easing the search for everyone by balancing availability.

SF park Screenshot
The sensors by SFpark made it easier to find parking in the city.
Photo: SFpark

The big data dilemma: convenience vs. anonymity

Cleverciti’s Thomas Hohenacker is already thinking ahead – and considering the system’s potential added value. “It supplies the community with data that could be used, for example, to promote retail. If the system indicates that many spots in a retail area are occupied by long-term parkers, it could redirect them to free up spaces for customers.”

The collected data would also reveal availability fluctuations across different areas and times-of-day. Flexible drivers could plan their trips accordingly.

At the same time, the sheer mass of detailed and sensitive data requires extremely secure handling. Both Hohenacker and Zwick are eager to stress that faces and license plates are not (yet) captured by the sensors.

Meanwhile, the technology could also highlight areas of rich pickings for those who issue parking tickets. A tempting boon for any city treasury.

How the Siemens radar works
Knowing where to park without looking: the sensor-controlled parking management system by Siemens.
Photo: Siemens AG

Thomas Hohenacker downplays the dangers. He thinks that easier searches would increase the motivation to pay – in future, people might even be able to reserve their favorite spot.

With more and more new cars always online, parking space updates could simply become an integral part of your sat nav. Hohenacker expects to finalize contracts for his parking space sensors with three to four cities this year.

Generally speaking, he thinks these systems should have been in place years ago. “Right now, we’re still in the Middle Ages when it comes to finding parking spots. If hotels operated along those lines, we’d have to knock on every single door to find out if they had a room for us.”

What remains is the question of funding: Huge benefits face steep investments that will take a few years to pay off. Yet backed by a critical mass of progressive local politicians, Bad Hersfeld could soon become the Palo Alto of Europe’s parking tech scene.

The Siemens parking manager
The new sensor-controlled parking management system from Siemens is helping to optimize the use of urban parking facilities.
Photo: Siemens AG

Header image: mbbirdy/Getty Images