By adaptive - April 27th, 2015

City drivers will know that all too familiar feeling of hopelessly trawling the streets looking for a parking space. But as Ella Williamson uncovers, there are app entrepreneurs aiming to ease that congestion.

After circling the block in vain, many drivers will get creative and park in odd spots. That also leads many to get ticketed in the process. Several enterprising engineers are creating mobility apps, aiming to use big data to make parking easier and as seamless as handing your keys to a valet at a hotel.

A 2014 report by Strategy Analytics revealed that 42 percent of Chinese consumers surveyed are ‘very interested’ in parking-finder connected services, followed by 29 percent of Western Europeans and 21 percent of Americans.

Israeli tech firm Anagog aims to provide such a finder service. Anagog uses crowd-sourced parking information to highlight newly vacated parking spaces in real time. Anagog monitors mobile phone sensors and uses data-mining algorithms, providing an SDK to integrate its services into third party apps. “Several millions of users have already downloaded applications that have Anagog SDK embedded. By the end of the year we expect to increase distribution significantly and have several dozens of millions of download users in a variety of cities all over the world”, Yaron Aizenbud, founder of Anagog reveals.

In the UK, the founder of AppyParking– Dan Hubert, is striving to eliminate confusion, time wasting and fines with what he calls the “world’s first standardized parking data set and search engine”. AppyParking is a content-management system that understands the rules, restrictions and tariffs from the rather fragmented world of the public and private parking sector in the UK.

“It’s all about big data with big detail,” Hubert explains. The free app, which won the Ford Congestion Challenge Award - London, is available as an API or mobile application for iOS and Android.

In the US, valet-style parking apps have been a key focus for tech entrepreneurs. Last summer Zirx launched what it describes as “the first of its kind” on-demand parking service app for iOS and Android. It now operates in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

Zirx uses a drop pin within the free app for customers to summon a valet agent to their location. The agent then takes the keys and parks the vehicle in an enclosed lot for the sum of $15 a day. Additional services that Zirx is adding include electric vehicle charging and oil changes.

The car’s return time and location is either scheduled in advance or by tapping the app on demand. Payment is cashless and taken from the customer’s pre-registered credit card.

Zirx CEO and co-founder Sean Behr tells Open Mobile Media that the key to Zirx’s operation is “understanding positions - the positions of cars, customers and agents - so the app uses a lot of maps and location services. We also use sophisticated forecasting and optimization algorithms to optimally assign agents and provide routes.”

Valet Anywhere is another on-demand parking service, founded by CEO Robert Kao and operating in New York. For $6 an hour, Valet Anywhere users can tap the iOS or Android app and request a valet to park and then, when you are ready, return your car. Payments are made using the pre-registered credit card within the app; tips, however, must be paid separately in cash.

Kao reveals that it’s the firm’s long-term monthly parking option that sets Valet Anywhere apart from its competition. “It enables us to own transient parking in every major city in the world,” he says. This service costs from $325 monthly. Business is good Kao reveals, “Our paid monthly subscriber growth and daily parkers have been growing at a tremendous rate. We will be crossing the million dollar run rate in revenue very shortly.”

With these mobility applications running primarily on smartphones, firms need to make contingency plans for phone batteries that have lost their charge. Zirx, Valet Anywhere and similar applications including the soon to launch Caarbon, all offer support hotlines that can be called from a payphone.

And whilst handing your keys over to a valet agent on a skateboard may be a little too much to take for some, Zirx’s Behr reassures that, “Our customers' trust is very important to us and without that, it would be tough to succeed. We have on-site staff at every lot, which are enclosed, and cameras to ensure safety and security 24/7.”

Zirx is also covered by a $2 million insurance policy: $1 million on the car, and $1 million on the agent driving the vehicle. Kao’s Valet Anywhere uses secure garage partnerships and a thorough valet screening process to reduce fear factor for users.

Expanding into Europe is something that Zirx, Valet Anywhere and Caarbon are keen to undertake. Zirx’s Behr reveals that its sights lie beyond the USA, “Parking is a problem that everyone can relate to globally and we intend to be the solution. Expanding internationally is definitely something that's on our radar.”

Valet Anywhere’s Kao echoes this statement, “Where there are cities and vehicles, we'll be there.”

Roger Lanctot, anssociate director, Global Automotive Practice, at Strategy Analytics shares his insight into the likelihood of valet-style apps being adopted outside of the US. “There is no reason these apps can’t or wouldn’t work outside the US. It is a simple matter of an application for which there is interest. Connected mobile devices create an opportunity for ad hoc services and on-demand valet parking is a perfect ad hoc opportunity”.

AppyParking’s Hubert adds, “European customers could warm up to valet apps but it will take some time. Look at AirBnB for example. People didn’t invest at first because it felt like a bad idea to allow strangers to come into your home. Now look where AirBnB is! That’s what America is great for - leaping onto an opportunity, then Europe follows.”

Looking to the future of parking applications, Lanctot predicts the standalone model may have a short app-life with improved connectivity in newer cars, “No one will want to access parking information as a separate function. Parking should become part of the contextually aware vehicle system that turns on automatically as you approach your destination to find the nearest available parking space.” 

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