Automatic for the people?

Car parking robot

Independent consultant Chris Wortley looks at how the latest technologies used in the car parking industry sector can either help or hinder efficiency and revenue generation at airport sites.

Car parking robotUntil quite recently, technology for car parks had not changed for many years. There was the usual software upgrades being offered by the equipment suppliers and a handful of companies dominated the market.

Today we find as in most other markets that disruptors have arrived who promise to make life both simpler for the customer and more efficient for the car park operator and in many cases act as an additional revenue generator. I thought that it would be useful to explore the more recent options now available and discuss most importantly their usefulness from an airport parking perspective.

So to name a few, we have seen Registration Plate Recognition, bay assistance/finding lighting, Robotic car parks, Barrier less-technology and the myriad of Apps (Applications) for smart phones that offer ticketless and identification solutions. How successful have they been, and in some cases, how necessary are they?

Registration Plate Recognition Technology

Capturing the cars unique identifier for recognition is not only a smart thing to do to assist in access and egress but today very important from a security perspective, in fact most police and security services are already doing this long before cars arrive at the airport. Today the manufacturers have developed strong algorithms that have a high level of accuracy. Where it doesn’t work so well is in certain countries or states where the License plates themselves provide more of a challenge. In this case, some airports are using RFID technology, particularly in Staff parking facilities. A far more, but more expensive means of recognition. This technology also requires customer enrolment.

Without a doubt License plate technology has improved the way that Car Parks operators manage their parking lots today and can use this technology to control access and egress, reduce the number of “sneak outs” where customers try to avoid payment and most importantly allow car parks to charge different rates based upon where cars park (Premium/Valet).

Bay Assistance

Where you have a very busy car park, as most airports do, this technology is a must and the suppliers promise that it will allow you to improve your revenue, particularly once car parks achieve occupancy levels north of 80%.

Where it has its limitations, and many systems do, is when inaccuracy creeps in and the red and green lights that signify “Busy or Free” are sending out the wrong colour signal.

I liken it to your trip to the supermarket where you negotiate the aisles successfully, get all of your shopping and proceed to the checkout. If you find what you want then you are happy, if you don’t, then you blame yourself for not knowing where to look. The moment you seek assistance and the assistant can’t find what you want this is down to the store’s incompetence.

Companies providing bay finding can get to 98% accuracy and above. But in a large and busy car park lot this still means that there is an inaccuracy of over 100 bays.

It seems that universally, car park operators are installing Bay Finding technology in all of their car parks. I would argue that nothing could substitute for a well laid out and designed car park with simple clear wayfinding in place.

Where bay finding is installed, I would also suggest that when a parking floor is full that there is a place for barrier technology to restrict access. As we know, customers want to park in their favourite spot, which is often the most convenient spot and no technology is going to stop them from seeking this out. Particularly if its telling the “Full” story.

Automated car parks-robotics

This solution has limited applications at airports and is a great solution if deployed in Valet or Premium parking lots. However the practicality of robotics handling 1,000-1,500 cars on a Monday busy arrival or Friday peak departure timeframe will only create a poor experience in my view. When fully automated vehicles arrive on the scene in a few years from now they will be able to park and store themselves and so I can’t see airports investing in a solution that will have a long pay back time with a low return on investment.

Apps (Applications)

If you’re like most people you will have 20-30 Apps on your smart phone and use your favourites everyday. Some you will never use. Like your wallet, how many loyalty cards can you get in there? Airline Apps are the most popular and important for travellers and the ratio of App downloads to Airport Apps is currently 4,000:1 in favour of Airlines.

There has to be a compelling reason for a customer to want to download and use an App and this is where if we get our technology strategy right at airports and ensure that the technology we invest in is joined up, that we will win the battle of the App.

Being able to book your car park space from an App, having the App advise you of your flights status and the sensible time you need to leave your house for the airport, that also accounts for Check In time and how busy the car parks are is the way to compel customers to use the Apps.

Linking the technology that then way finds the customer into the car park, to the lot and through the airport, taking care of payments if the customer has registered their payment method in the virtual wallet, is certainly the way to go.

Unfortunately I am finding a more commonplace scenario in which new car park technology is being sold to airports in isolation, has expensive built in obsolescence and does not think smartly about the whole customer journey. This is the area that I spend my time focusing on. Specifying the Airports Traveller strategy and working with all of the departments that control the customer journey; Ground Transportation, Car Parks, Operations, Baggage Control Etc.

Automated Vehicles

Imagine trying to explain to your grandchildren in 25 years time how you used to drive a car with a steering wheel. Many people today are just guessing what the implications of the Automated Vehicle will have on the parking industry. Below are two commonly made assumptions which both have severe problems in my view.

“You wont need car parks – cars will take themselves home and return when required”- Imagine the congestion involved in that?

“Automated cars don’t care where they park or what the conditions are-premium and Valet will be dead”- Try telling that to the busy executive who has to wait at airport rush hour for the car to arrive at the forecourt.

Of course there will be change, more notably around vehicle ownership. Car Parks are likely to benefit from technology enhancement and even with the automated car, License Plate Recognition and Bay finding will be equally important, as will Apps that can today find your car for you and tomorrow call your car when you want it.

Online Pre-booking

Online, technology is not changing, but there are far more suppliers arriving on the scene, which has to be good for the industry. Using Online in conjunction with Apps makes for the seamless parking and airport experience. Online Pre-booking is not as an airport CEO once told me “a way to give revenue away”. Most airports use the offer of a percentage discount to lure customers to pre-book. The key benefit however is in improving market penetration by being able to compete with other modes of transport that provide transport to the airport.

Customers can be upgraded to a product that they may never have used before and other associated products can be added on or created as a “Bundle”. These include:

  • Fast Track through Search
  • Kerb Side Check in
  • Shopping or Food and Beverage discounts
  • Lounge Access

To an airport, the key benefits are of improved cash flow – you get paid at the point of booking – and better resourcing of your airport, as you know when cars are arriving.

Today Online allows for better yield management. When a car park is getting full you can adjust the price. More recently dynamic pricing is being introduced and in the same way as our airline partners and rail operators vary price based upon the time of day you depart and arrive, airports can align this with their car parks. Online Pre-booking is a huge revenue driver if managed correctly and not just used as a plug in off the shelf piece of software.

Car parking at airports is changing. I am very encouraged by many of the changes I see from our suppliers and also encouraged by the way that airports think about the product that creates: “The first and lasting customer experience at Airports”.

In many airports car parking accounts for more revenue than Retail and Food and beverages put together. Car parking and ground transport is now being created as a separate business unit, headed up by commercially savvy Parking and Transport executives and not managed as a Cinderella at the Retail ball.

Whilst I cannot predict what new technology we will see tomorrow, what I do know is that for it to be deployed successfully at airports it has to have proof of concept and work well for our customers. This is because reputational risk is and always should be, high on our agenda.

Chris Wortley is a Parking and Transport practitioner and consultant. He provides services to Airports worldwide and has practised most notably at London Gatwick and Melbourne International Airports – the world’s largest parking operations.

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