So-called ‘smart’ parking goes commercial
Ready for this? Truck Smart Parking Services has set up shop in Michigan with their sights on expanding the network to alert truckers of available parking via electronic highway signs, on the web and on their smartphone app.

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

Smart parking has been the subject of government-funded studies and projects at least since 2000. Now a private company is making it a business. At least it’s trying.

The company is called Truck Smart Parking Services. TSPS has set up shop in Michigan where it tracks truck parking spaces at locations along I-94 and makes the information visible to drivers on electronic highway signs, on the web, and through a smartphone app.

At the moment, there are only four electronic signs and 15 parking locations. Half of those locations are at private truck stops, and half are highway rest areas operated by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

According to Harry Voccola, chairman of TSPS, the company monitors truck parking spaces with sensors at lot entrances and exits to track trucks coming and going. Cameras validate the sensor counts. There is currently no charge for truckers to use the system. You can access the TSPS information and download the app, called TSPS Heads Up, for free.

So how does TSPS make money?

At the moment, it doesn’t. But Voccola believes the truck parking challenge is a ground-floor opportunity.

“It’s one of the last frontiers in transportation where technology is coming into play,” he said. “We’re in discussions with at least a dozen states.”

Voccola knows something about transportation technology. Before TSPS, he worked with Lockheed Martin to develop and deploy E-ZPass automated toll systems. Even earlier, he was a founder of HELP, the PrePass system that enables compliant trucks to bypass weigh and inspection stations in 15 states.

TSPS, Voccola said, won’t make money for a few years. The short-term plan calls for the number of parking sites to grow from 15 to 30 during 2015. Also by the end of the year, he expects drivers will be able to reserve a parking space ahead of time – for which they will pay a fee.

Long term, Voccola expects revenue from other sources as well. “We see companies. We see states. We see local governments. We see truck stop operators and all suppliers to the trucking industry,” he said.

Those trucking suppliers will want to advertise on the TSPS app, Voccola said. 

Currently, however, TSPS appears a bit rough around the edges. Its website includes a map of the Michigan area that requires a bit more explanation than is offered. For example, the map shows a great many parking locations, most of which are truck stops, all over the state and in nearby Indiana, Ohio, and even Ontario. But if you check the box marked “Show only lots with availability,” all but a handful of locations vanish. It looks like there is nowhere to park a truck in Michigan except for some spots along I-94, including one grim-looking site in Detroit.

Voccola assured me that the Detroit site, while not very attractive, is indeed secure and that food and showers were available to drivers.

Where did all those other truck stops come from and where did they go when I checked that box?

“There are a large number of truck stops in the state, but most are not yet instrumented,” Voccola explained. “That means they’re not yet in the system. We’ve only connected on I-94.”

When I checked the box, it seems, only the connected sites showed up, which accounts for all those unconnected locations going away.

But when and if the TSPS system should grow to include all the truck stops in Michigan, it still won’t address a larger problem, Voccola noted.

“If you don’t have connected corridors, individual state systems have limited value to the trucker,” he said. “The distance a trucker can drive in a day, that’s the minimum amount of highway that needs to be networked.”

In other words, a more comprehensive system should assure drivers in the morning that they will be able to safely park at the end of a day in which they might cross one or two state borders.

Voccola would like to see TSPS involved in creating a more wide-ranging system.

“The federal government in recent years has spent upwards of $50 million on this problem nationwide with what I’d say is limited success, and is now proposing to spend even more,” he said. “We would expect that some of that money is available to companies like ours. We have a system that works; it’s deployed. All we have to do is expand it.”

Voccola also conceded that the feds might better have spent more of that original $50 million on creating more parking spaces – something the evolving parking technologies simply can’t. LL