Computer car park offers answer to crime and concrete: John Arlidge reports on a pounds 250,000 pilot project for automatic parking whose designers claim machines will put an end to a city centre 'cancer'

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S first car park which does its own parking is set to open later this year. If the pounds 250,000 project is a success, it could mean the end of the 'cancer' of crime-ridden concrete city centre car parks, according to the designer.

Under the scheme, to be tested in Plymouth, motorists drive their car on to a metal 'plate' on a lift. They leave the vehicle, lock it, and key their date of birth into a computer which issues a bar-coded ticket.

A central computer selects a space for the car and the lift takes it to the appropriate floor, where it slides into the space on the plate, which runs on rails. On return, motorists feed the bar-coded ticket into the computer and key in their date of birth. As they pay, the central computer locates the car and moves it back on to the lift which brings it down.

Although the Plymouth scheme will have just two lifts and 16 parking spaces, Hylo Automated Parking, of Ivybridge, Devon, says it has an order to build a 20-lift, 820-space unit.

Winston Harper-Douglas, the design engineer, said that because the scheme was virtually crime-proof the company would insure vehicles against theft or damage.

'The date of birth is your own personal identification number,' he said. 'It's not printed on the ticket, so even if someone finds your ticket there is no way they can retrieve your car. If someone stole your ticket, driving licence and keys, they could, in theory, retrieve your car but they would be filmed on video and we will be advising people to keep tickets, licences and keys separate.

'The floors where the cars are stored are completely inaccessible. We will use a heat-sensitive infra-red camera to check no one is in the vehicles before they are parked. So there is no risk of break-ins.'

Mr Harper-Douglas dismissed fears of computer mix-ups. 'People have said: 'What's to stop me going in with a Reliant Robin and coming out with a Rolls-Royce?' It's impossible. Not a hope in hell. Even if someone shares your date of birth, the bar codes on the tickets will be different.'

The scheme is environmentally friendly, he added. 'You don't need roadways and you can have much lower ceilings with separate floors for ordinary cars and high vehicles, so the building can be smaller. It can be clad in any finish. In Bath you could have Portland stone, in Milton Keynes glass, and in Manchester brick. The concrete cancer could be removed.'

Mike Riggs, chair of Plymouth council's joint highways committee, welcomed the prospect of increased security. 'We have a major problem with theft from and of vehicles in car parks,' he said. 'We have been trying all sorts of security measures - video cameras, extra patrols. We are very enthusiastic about the new scheme.'