Introducing the meter from hell

Forget traffic wardens. Alongside the new smart meter they'll seem tame. Sue Nelson reports
One of life's small pleasures may soon disappear. An American company has designed a parking meter that resets to zero whenever a vehicle leaves its bay. Consequently, the next motorist will never enjoy the perk of pulling into a space with time left on the meter. And if you're thinking of parking without paying until a traffic warden appears, think again. Not even the "I just got here..." excuse will help because the meter displays stationary waiting time. It will also kill the common city habit of meter- feeding by accepting extra coins but refusing to extend the time. In short, this new smart meter is plain mean.

Its inventor, Vincent Yost, seems undeterred. "I might become America's most wanted," he jokes. Mr Yost is president of Intelligent Devices: a small company, formed only six months or so ago, in the suburban town of Harleysville, Pennsylvania. To begin with, six prototype "intelligent meters" were tested in nearby Ardmore, generating more than double the revenue of previous meters. As a result, more mean meters have been made for a number of cities including Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, for a longer test period over the summer.

At the moment, 10 of Mr Yost's meters can be found in the small picturesque town of New Hope, Pennsylvania. At first sight they don't look much different from the others. "We did that intentionally," Mr Yost admits. "We took an existing case and modified it to allow our signal to come out and detect the vehicle."

The modification is a biscuit-sized, flush-mounted hole protected by an industrial-strength screen through which a beam senses a vehicle by using a combination of software and sensing technologies.

"We tried motion detection first - the sort where doors open automatically in supermarkets," Mr Yost says. "But a jogger or bicycle would fool us so we couldn't rely on just that. Then we tried heat sensing but realised that if a snowbank ploughed around the meter, for example, it would insulate it from a change in heat. So we have used a sophisticated blend of the two to achieve near 100 per cent reliability."

Mr Yost has to keep the exact specifications a secret from other meter manufacturers but his smart meter contains a microcomputer powered by two lithium batteries and a microprocessor with a sensor. The power supply is only 6.2V and the batteries last between 16 and 18 months.

"The reason we can extend this battery life is because the meter is asleep 90 per cent of the time," explains Dave Habbershaw, head of software development at Intelligent Devices. "When a vehicle is parked the meter wakes up for approximately a tenth of a second every four seconds to see if it is still there. All the components were chosen because they were low powered," he adds, "and the microprocessor has a sleep mode which is also important in extending the battery life."

From an administrative point of view, however, municipalities are most impressed by the amount of data and revenue this new meter can provide. It provides statistics on the number of cars parked, the average time each car parked, the number of times the meter reset, the number of times a space was empty and that average time as well.

This data helps vehicle turnover studies and also indicates whether existing space or time limits are used effectively. If cars spend an average time of 45 minutes in a two-hour waiting zone, for instance, then the space is not being put to best use. "So while it doesn't cost any more to park in one of these meters," says Mr Yost, "it does ensure the municipality gets its fair rent for that space." More important, by always resetting to zero, the new meter practically guarantees a higher revenue.

To retrieve information from the meter, wardens must use a computer about the size of a television remote control. It communicates with each meter via an infrared beam and takes about six to eight seconds to receive the data. At the end of the day these statistics are downloaded on to a PC to update files, reports and graphics. "It also reduces fraud," Mr Habbershaw adds, "because the meter mechanism counts all the money inserted and this is part of the collected data."

Refinements are continually being made, of course. In New Hope, a case of bad parking fooled one meter into thinking that no car was present. "But we were able to make an adjustment to widen the beam," Mr Yost says, "and that allows us to pick up the tiniest of vehicles - even motorcycles."

The unsuspecting motorist in New Hope, however, will never know that the meter has reset to zero and Yost is convinced and unperturbed by his invention. "It doesn't cost more to park, but it brings in more money and therefore reduces taxes," he states, before adding ominously, "and I think we'll be taking the intelligent meter to the UK real soon."