Remote Controlled

Will a new generation of curbside sensors end our parking problems -- or help the government monitor our every move?

In the future, the world's surface may be salted with billions of synthetic brain cells, each sensing its surroundings and communicating with neighbor cells. This multilayered sensing and networking ability is, in the mind of some artificial-life computer researchers, the pith of intelligence. So, once it's covered with a perceptive neural network, the planet's surface might develop thoughts and feelings of its own.

My introduction to this looming scenario came a couple of weeks ago, after I had circled the blocks near 18th and Valencia streets for a while, looking for a place to park my wife's minivan. I was on my way to drinks with my friends Gabriel Metcalf and Elizabeth Sullivan, the couple who founded San Francisco's nonprofit rental car company City CarShare, which aims to reduce the number of autos on our streets and thus ease parking problems in places like the Mission neighborhood.

They passed the successful City CarShare operation on to its board of directors a while ago to focus on day jobs and kids. Now, I learned, Elizabeth is involved in a start-up company called Streetline that's ostensibly aimed at helping cities further ease parking woes. But if I read the implications of its technology and mission accurately, Streetline has the potential to lead us toward the aforementioned conscious-planet scenario, which, Gabriel facetiously predicted, might end up with a newly sentient Mother Earth rising up against her human overlords.

Streetline hopes to install thousands of sensors along city streets and use the information they gather to adjust parking meter rates in a way that makes street parking easy to find -- for those willing to pay.

"These little sensors -- which are a lot like the Botts Dots that mark traffic lanes, or it looks a bit like that -- they're very nondescript. They're every 10 feet, close to the curb, in a very nondescript way," Elizabeth said of Streetline, noting that the company will soon announce a pilot project for a Bay Area organization. "They turn on and gather information -- very simple information. It's a tool for traffic engineers to manage city streets."

City streets and, eventually, a great deal more, I'll wager.

Elizabeth went on to explain that her new start-up will be using unique sensor networks developed by a company called Dust, which, in an odd coincidence, was co-founded by my genius electrical engineering Ph.D. cousin, Rob Conant. The sensors are an outgrowth of a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and aimed at exploiting University of California research into microtechnology for possible military use. The basic idea is that if an army could drop millions of tiny temperature, pressure, sound, and other sensors -- preciously called "motes" -- over hundreds of miles of battlefield, and if these sensors could radio information to neighboring sensors, enemy footsteps could ultimately be relayed to a supercomputer and analyzed by a general, who could then bark exquisitely informed commands.

It turns out, however, that the most practical application for this technology can be found in mundane realms such as the exquisitely precise monitoring of a grocery store's freezer case temperatures, to cut energy use. Or the technology could be used to create an all-knowing/all-being warehouse security system that senses everything about every moment of even the pettiest security breach. Or, in the case of Streetline, it could precisely monitor activity in a city's parking spaces, so a computer might figure out how much parking meters should charge so 15 percent of the spaces remain empty -- the optimum amount, research has shown, for making it convenient to shop by car.

Tod Dykstra, a co-founder of both Dust and Streetline, would not elaborate on San Francisco-based Streetline's capitalization, products, or client base. "We have working prototypes of systems that have been demoed, and we are producing hardware, and we have had conversations with cities," he did say. "We're around where a start-up wants to be around now. We've been in business six months.

"If we lay this out for parking, that will be a backbone. On that, you could put a gunshot sensor, or sensors that tell when the gutters are overflowing in the rainy season. These are low-cost things that will make information more efficient and improve the quality of life."

Improve it for a while, that is.

If cities, companies, armies, and other organizations seize on the logic behind Elizabeth and Rob's expansive sensory neural networks, it's easy to imagine a future in which information about battlefield dust devils and downtown tire tracks is networked in the world's collective computer consciousness, the way financial and other data are now. Weather satellites and fire alarms could become obsolete. Perhaps even telephones would, too. Just speak a friend's name into the Potrero breeze, and she'll hear your voice's unique frequency in Budapest.

Clearly, this much sensing and networking and calculating could produce a day on which we're confronted by a once-submissive foe, as in Planet of the Apes.

Not so, Dykstra says: "Extended intelligence, that may be something they're working on somewhere. But it's just science fiction."

But because he's family, Conant, Dust's director of product development, responded to my fears more gamely.

The company has taken preventative measures, he explained: "We're never going to give motes opposable thumbs."


As fanciful as my Planet of the Electronic Apes scenario may be, it contains a speck of earnestness. There is, I believe, an unavoidable trajectory of logic that follows from the possibility of a sensor-covered world. I perceived this last week as I spoke with experts in my favorite area of the arcane: urban parking policy studies.

"I call it the Goldilocks Principle," said Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA and America's main academic guru in the field. "Listening to the Goldilocks story, children learn that the porridge shouldn't be too hot or too cold. With parking spaces, prices shouldn't be too low or too high. If there are a few vacant spaces, the price is just right."

He's come up with a system -- like many others in our complicated, connected world -- in which the more details we know about something, the more finely we can tune the system to work precisely as we wish.

For a business district to be easily accessible by car, Shoup says, parking prices should be high enough so it's possible to go to a downtown store just as they do in television sitcoms -- drive up, find a streetside space in front, and walk right in. This principle -- that prices should be set to exactly the point that there's enough to go around for those who really want the commodity -- seems obvious when it comes to lettuce or computer mice.

But the idea of closely monitoring empty and full parking spaces and subtly adjusting meter prices so each block remains 15 percent empty was a principle untried anywhere in America -- until last month, when Redwood City approved a plan, developed by the city's downtown development director, Dan Zack, to do just that.

"We're going to have the most pure Don Shoup system in the country," notes Zack, who was told last year by city fathers to develop a cheap way to manage parking for a commercial redevelopment plan in downtown Redwood City. Shoup believes he's come up with one that's not only cheap, but that will also create a more dynamic downtown.

In research into parking patterns in downtown Pasadena and the Los Angeles business district of Westwood Village, Shoup and graduate student Douglas Kolozsvari found that business owners tended to fret mightily about how hard it was for customers to park in front of their stores, while simultaneously viewing storefront, curbside parking spaces as a great spot for themselves and their employees to park, 9 to 5.

"If you manage it correctly, you solve a lot of problems people are complaining about," notes Kolozsvari. "I think the largest deterrent to customers parking is a full parking spot, rather than a priced parking spot. If you know you'll never find parking in an area, you'll never go there."

Business owners are rarely interested in higher parking rates in front of their stores. They see it as another way the city General Fund is taking money out of their pockets. With this in mind, in 2003 Shoup and Kolozsvari co-authored an article in the planning journal Access that examined an Old Pasadena revitalization scheme in which the money never traveled far from the meter itself. In other words, increased business-district parking fees were used exclusively for localized investments such as sidewalk steam cleaning, security guards, lighting, repaving, and the like.

By the Shoup/Kolozsvari analysis, this scheme was integral to the recent retail boom in once-decrepit Old Pasadena. Conversely, they felt, these principles also applied to the decline of once-popular Westwood Village, which had erected new multistory garages in response to what business owners perceived as parking pressures. Now, Shoup notes, Old Pasadena merchants love their high parking fees.

So in Redwood City, Shoup and Zack have recommended that credit card- friendly parking meters be installed, and that rates be increased from 25 cents to 75 cents an hour, with no limit on how long a motorist can park. "At first the merchants went crazy about the cost increase," notes Zack. "When we told them about how there will be no time limits, that we'll be power-washing the sidewalks, they were in. When we had a City Council meeting, merchants came to support it."

Peering down the road, Zack adds, "With Elizabeth Sullivan's product, they'd know when you leave and charge the credit card for what you use. Because we're charging a market rate for parking, we're going to get that efficient spread, where you always have a few empty spaces. Because of that, we're able to get rid of time limits. You can park as long as you're willing to pay for. Time limits only serve to inconvenience you.

"A lot of shoppers don't mind paying. What they don't want is to pay a ticket."


Zack is doing only what efficiency-minded managers of organizations, systems, products, and policies are doing everywhere these days: obtaining as much fine-grained information as possible about their target, then adjusting levels, specifications, and plans to a feather's edge that makes things happen just so.

Zack, Sullivan, Dykstra, Shoup, Kolozsvari, and Conant believe that it's possible to revolutionize the way the world works by applying information systems technology to the most mundane processes and out-of-the-way places, where nobody imagined there would be a role for such deep knowledge.

You might think that because some of these people are my friends, and one is my cousin, I'm inclined to agree with these beliefs, or at least be receptive to some elements of such talk.

I'm not.

I'm entirely against it.

And should you ever step off a Golden Gate Park trail and urinate, only to hear an embarrassment-inducing, "Ahhhhhh, thanks. That felt good!" from behind a blackberry bush, remember: I warned you.

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