French city implements new public parking spot sensors | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 23.12.2010
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French city implements new public parking spot sensors

Toulouse, in the south of France, hopes to install 70 public parking spot sensors early next year. The devices will let residents check to see if there are free parking spaces on public streets.

A woman parking a car

Toulouse hopes to make finding a parking spot easier

As European drivers bounce around their city doing their last-minute shopping, there's always something that causes even more stress: parking on city streets. After all, sometimes it can feel like it takes forever to find a parking spot, especially on those narrow and tough-to-navigate city centers.

But a new piece of French technology may put an end to the headache of looking for a city parking spot. The device indicates free places to drivers on their cell phones by using space technology that was originally developed to help balloons park on the planet Venus.

The new device, Lyberta, is currently being tested on the streets of the southern French city of Toulouse.

It works through a series of tiny receptors that are planted just under the pavement. The receptors can tell whether a vehicle is parked over them by measuring their magnetic field. They transmit that information to an electronic box on the block, which relays it to a central server. The server then sends the information out to your telephone in real time.

"This car has been here since 8 a.m. this morning, and here's one that's been parked here since November 25th," explains Tony Marchand, the technical director of the start-up company that is developing project.

Marchand says the device can also recognize whether a vehicle is a car or a truck, from their different magnetic profiles.

Street traffic

A French government study shows that 60 percent of urban pollution is due to idling cars

Limited trials for now

For now, there are only four sensors installed under Toulouse's streets, but starting early next year, the city will put in 70 more and hook them up with a pool of 80 users. The eventual goal is to cover the entire city, although that may take time as each sensor costs about 100 euros ($131) each.

Marchand says one of Lyberta's advantages is that it uses radio waves instead of GPS, so it doesn't need a satellite hook up, and that means it's more reliable, and cheaper to operate.

Marchand says the US sometimes shuts off the GPS network for military secrecy reasons. But more commonly, GPS is often less effective down on city streets because of what is known as the canyoning effect - when large buildings block the signal.

Alexandre Marciel, Toulouse's deputy mayor is very excited about the project, which stemmed from an idea he had several years ago to try to ease gridlock on Toulouse's narrow downtown streets.

"The system is very simple," he said. "You just have to look on your cell phone and you know, in real time, if a parking spot is free or not.”

Marciel says that will help cut down on time spent driving around looking for a parking space and the extra pollution this causes.

Idling cars contribute to air pollution

French government studies show that 60 percent of urban pollution in France is due to idling cars searching for a place to park, which translates into 700 million wasted hours a year, notes Marciel.

The device will also help the town to better manage its public parking system.

Toulouse bridge

Toulouse is the home of France's aerospace and space science research

Marciel adds French cities on average collect money from only about a third of their parking spaces.

"But it's more than money," he says. "Anarchic parking eats away at the quality of life of a town."

Marciel says the system will also let drivers pay for parking without using cash or a credit card, by just putting a chip on their windshield. It will also recognize certain categories of vehicles like ambulances and handicapped cars, and allow them to park for free.

Origins in space science

Lyberta would have been possible without the cooperation of the French space agency, known as the CNES (Centre Nationale d'Etudes Spatiales), whose headquarters are located in Toulouse.

Antonio Guell is in charge of bringing space research down to Earth for the good of the public. He says Lyberta took advantage of two space technologies that were developed and patented over the last decade.

"These technologies were developed to help stratospheric balloons land on Venus and communicate with each other without using heavy duty transmission equipment," says Guell.

Guell says the balloons never made it to Venus for budgetary reasons. But their technology may soon be helping cars find parking spots in Toulouse and other cities in Europe and Canada that are interested in the project.

But, there's one thing drivers may not appreciate, says Guell: Lyberta will also be able to tell the police when they don't feed the parking meter.

Author: Eleanor Beardsley, Toulouse
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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