Smart Minds

How a Parked Car Could Save Your Life


Conventional thinking has it that parked cars are a nuisance in cities. They clog up roadsides and require land-gobbling garages or lots. And studies show that cars spend about 95 percent of their time parked. That’s a lot of nuisance.

But what if cars were not just two tons of steel, glass and rubber that needed storage? What if they were powerful data platforms that worked together to gather and disseminate information, thereby improving citizen safety and convenience? What if cars became part of the Internet of Things, the growing system of interconnected, cloud-empowered objects?

That’s the thinking that Robert Shorten, of IBM Research – Ireland, and his connected-cars team are bringing to the streets.

“There is a huge number of cars worldwide packed full of sensors and computational power,” Shorten says. “Their location when parked is more certain than when moving and they have power supplies, so they are perfect to play an infrastructure role and to complement the needs of citizens in a city.”

Revving Up Untapped Capabilities

How might this work in real life? Well, for example, gas leaks are dangerous and costly hazards in urban settings. What if the streets were lined with sensors that could detect and collectively estimate the source of leaks? If every car had an active gas sensor on board, that’s pretty much what you’d have. This is but one of four connected-car applications IBM is actively testing in Dublin.

More and more, a car’s power needs to be measured not only by the power of the engine under the hood. Today’s cars increasingly roll out of showrooms bristling with cameras, motion sensors and other data-gathering devices. And by 2020, it’s estimated that nine out of 10 cars will have Internet connectivity. Why should all this capability sit untapped just because the engine is off?

“We are also looking at how the sensors in parked cars could augment a home security system,” Shorten says. “The idea is that if you have a motion detector on the car, it could be switched on at night to detect movement in the neighborhood. Or if someone’s house alarm goes off, then the camera in the car can switch on and start recording the scene.”

Parked cars might also be able to help you find your own parking space. And not just any space — a deployment of sensory-enabled and interconnected cars could help you find a space that’s best for your vehicle and your needs.

“Just as all cars are not the same, all parking spaces are not the same either,” Shorten explains. “Some parking spaces would be suitable for big cars, some for small cars. Some will be suitable for special-needs people, such as the elderly. Some will be close to the supermarket or to a hospital.”

Finding Fido and More

So cars parked along a street would be empowered to not only determine the quantity of parking spaces around them, but the quality of them as well. And connected cars could not only help us find spaces, but also lost dogs and other things. If Fido was wearing a passive, no-power-required radio identification device on his collar when he wandered off, car-based detection sensors in the appropriate neighborhood could be used to track him down.

The bottom line is that many of the reasons parked cars can be such a problem in cities —their size, their ubiquity — is also what makes them uniquely qualified to be put to work.

“An advantage cars have over something like a mobile phone is that it’s big, so you can mount bigger devices in a car,” Shorten says. “You can do a lot more crowd-sourcing applications in a car than you can using the mobile phone.”

Cars also have their own, off-the-grid power source. There are so many of them, that if a sensor fails on one car, it’s no big deal. Cars are also generally replaced every eight to nine years, so onboard technology is kept more current. And many of the reasons that parked cars can help in cities also apply to developing countries, where infrastructure challenges might be greater. Cars are everywhere, and so is their potential.

Turning eyesore to assets. Making urban planner headaches into citizen helpers. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Check out more articles and videos about IBM Research – Ireland here.

Brennen Jensen's picture
Posted by Brennen Jensen from Baltimore
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timpowers's picture

Can you please fix the captions on the video (and your other videos)? This can be easily done in Youtube. It's helpful for those with hearing impairments.

Anil Mishra, PE, PME's picture
Anil Mishra, PE, PME

Connected cars will save most productive lives all around the world. 1.3 million lives a year and millions of families and their main earner.

Ed1024L's picture

Just use drones and /or fixed sensors on street lamps, etc. instead of cars with expensive electronics consuming gas and/or electricity, brake pads, 4 tires at a time. ..

If the car is in use to move people, its location would heavily overlap with other nearby cars, especially in rush hour gridlock.

For home security use, motion sensors have to be carefully positioned and the sensor beams carefully aimed by trained installers. A car with sensors will not simply add on to an existing system every time you drive home after work by parking just anywhere facing any direction randomly.

In crime prone areas windows are already broken and GPS units stolen from cars. ... What will happen if cars are parked on EVERY city block with even more valuable electronics inside?

People with high end professional grade sound systems in their car trunk also use a second car battery to power all of that. An always on sensor system would also require extra battery capacity for power. Car batteries normally charge/recharge while the gas engine is running. Green vehicles not withstanding. Otherwise you'll have heavy duty extension cords running down the driveway or sidewalk just waiting for someone to trip on, which would make personal injury lawyers very happy. ...

Irish Bob's picture
Irish Bob

"Conventional thinking has it that parked cars are a nuisance in cities"
I wonder who thinks that, its definitely not the business and shop owners.
And who is going to pay for all the extra sensors and electronics in a car ?
What about privacy and what else these sensors will track etc ?

Hari Madduri's picture
Hari Madduri

Interesting idea. Of course, many practical issues like the ones that Ed1024L and Irish Bob raised. I can add more potential problems to the list, but let's focus on what is more near term and useful. I think if cars can collaborate/cooperate, certain useful things can be done quickly. I think, finding parking is one of them. Instead of parked cars telling you where to park, it might be the cars that left parking spots that can tell you. If cars can announce the parking spots they just left, the other cars listening to such events may find the spots. Likewise when a spot is grabbed by a car, it might also announce that it is taken already. This doesn't require any new sensors, it just requires a messaging system to which car owners voluntarily subscribe. This could be offered by the City as a free app (City could host the messaging server in their cloud).

webbrowan's picture

I just hope the government offsets the costs of a car when they realise all the dollars they'll save with this kind of cognitive technology in place. I'm pretty sure that people will be very happy that they don't need to worry about having too big a car loan the next time they're on the market for some new wheels! Besides that, is anyone else worried about how this is just a gateway to some super computer taking over the world over this new network?

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