Evolution or Revolution?
By Michael H. Bigbee
With all the hype on technology in our parking industry, there must be a pony in there somewhere. My experience is that venture capitalists (VCs) throw money at the wall, hoping some will stick. We are seeing more and more VC money going to parking startups, and many of them are coming and going quickly.
The VC folks tell me they don’t care. They are sure that with all these young, smart and hip people coming up with new ideas, a few will strike paydirt, and the backers will do well. I’m sure they know their business, but wouldn’t it have been better to think through the app or product first, discuss it with someone who knows something about parking, and then invest the money?
Although TIBA is relatively new on the U.S. scene, my company could be called a legacy manufacturer. We make off-street revenue control equipment, ticket dispensers, pay-on-foot machines, parking guidance systems and the like. We also have software running behind the scenes to make it all work.
The question I have to ask, as a CEO, is what are we going to be doing in 10 or 15 years?
First, consider that the “business” of parking really won’t change. It hasn’t changed much in 40 years. We rent spaces based on the time used, collect money and get it to the bank. It’s how we do that that is changing. And will be changing considerably in the future.
Frankly, I believe the current hardware will dramatically change or even go away, and in a decade or two, we will evolve from a hardware-centric to a software-centric company. But more on that later.
Consultants have a tendency to look across the entire universe of products, pick features from each one that seem to fit the “needs” of the customer, and then hope that one manufacturer will invest in pulling all those features together and close the gap between the spec and what is available on the market. When aggressive salespeople, either at the dealer or manufacturer level, agree to meet the specification hoping later they can convince engineering to do it, the process begins to crumble.
Just as the venture capitalists I mentioned above throw money hoping that they will succeed, consultants work with marketing staffs to get a manufacturer to design and build a product to fit an individual need. And often it’s a “need” that the end-user doesn’t really know exists or want, but that they were told was important, if not now, in the future.
The end-user may be influenced by the consultant. If they have not kept up on the changes in the industry, they are going to lean heavily on the consultant. On the other hand, the more learned user who has attended trade shows, read magazines and talked to his or her peers, may have a better feel for what is there and what is real.
It’s the responsibility of the manufacturer to educate both consultant and end-user through trade events, industry media and site visits. They must stress what is real, what can be done, and what cannot be done. If manufacturer A can supply feature 1 but not feature 2, and B can supply 2 but not 1, then decisions have to be made. Often you cannot have both, at least not in the time required to respond to an RFP.
But back to the buzz with all those apps.
Venture capitalists know that they will invest in 10 companies but only two will make it. They are used to a short lifecycle. How many apps can you name that began five years ago and still exist? In our industry, we are used to lifecycles of 10 or 15 years.
We hear that the main demographic for all this “app culture” is millennials. But don’t we also hear that they are moving back into the cities, not buying cars but walking and taking public transportation? Is all the new tech geared at a declining demographic?
Here’s the deal. If you have a new app, and you want it to work, you still need to go to those old-line manufacturers and get them to integrate with your latest and greatest.
Today, I’m a hardware company with management software that manages the traditional entry ticket device, paystation and exit verifier. However, in 10 years, I will be a software company managing the business processes of “entry,” “payment” and “exit” – and the equipment used to provide those functions could be dramatically different from what we typically see today. I will probably need a paystation for people who don’t have a mobile app. But maybe only one, and one lane of equipment. I will still need to accommodate a large percentage of population.
Think about the commercial with the guy who invented the first cellphone, walking around with a brick in his hand. Did AT&T really think 30 years ago that this was a threat to their pay-phone business? How many pay phones do you see on street corners anymore? Technology finds a way to become ubiquitous and inexpensive.
Parking is just starting down the path to changes in those three parts of our business: entry, payment and exit.
“Connected” cars will accelerate the change. Today, they have sonar, radar, Bluetooth, the Internet and a Wi-Fi hotspot. They can be identified as to where they are, who they are, and the like. It is a small step to integrate pay-by-cell or the equivalent into the vehicle.
Based on this, we can easily envision entry and exit lanes simply having an antenna. No gates, no tickets, no exit readers. OK, maybe an ALPR camera for those that don’t have smartcar electronics. The driver just drives in, parks and later simply drives out. Their account (credit card, whatever) is charged, and that’s it. They receive a receipt as part of their credit card bill. And all is right with the world.
Old cars can be retrofitted with an onboard ID device or the driver can use a NFC app on their smartphone. If all else fails, the ALPR system will track their license and send them a bill.
We are in the midst of a transition. My distributors know this and want to make sure that we keep up with changing technology and customer demands. Dozens of parking app manufacturers want me to interface with them. Auto companies are forging ahead with connected cars.
Remember one thing: We still park cars. We rent space by the hour. We have to know when they come in and when they leave.
Our business is still the same, but the technology that we use to accomplish that business will change faster in the next 10 years than it has in the last 30 years.
The changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. It’s an exciting time to be in the parking business.