Car parks may soon become a go-to destination for charging electric vehicles, collecting online shopping packages and catching up with emails.
Trials starting this year will offer drivers office pods to work in while they charge their cars, along with pop-up shops and office space for startups.
Drivers will be able to book and pay for their parking spaces and battery top-ups using a mobile phone app or through their car’s infotainment system.
High-tech car parks like this, known as mobility hubs, are the vision of Kim Challis, regional managing director at APCOA Parking (UK), a traditional car park operator that is reinventing itself as a technology company.
Mobility hubs are designed to bring benefits to local communities and to help car park owners make the most of the spaces they have, she says.
“It ranges from simple things like electric vehicle charging or using car parks for cycle parking. We can put in lockers so companies like Amazon and InPost don’t have to drive to every individual home, they can just drop off at the car parks,” she adds.
APCOA’s roots go back to 1949, when two businessmen founded the Airport Parking Company of America. The business has been through multiple restructures over the years, and today provides car parking services in 13 countries across Europe, under the ownership of Centerbridge, a private investment company.
APCOA’s business model is to bid for contracts to manage car parks for hospitals, airports and private companies. It also manages on-street parking and parking enforcement for local authorities, along with cameras on traffic lights and box junctions.
Parking is a low-margin business. It’s also highly competitive as car park operators bid against each other to win tenders to manage car parks. That competition has intensified over the past three years as operators face new high-tech rivals.
At the same time, traditional car parking companies have begun to develop their own parking apps and analytics technology. APCOA is itself part-way through a project to transform from a traditional car parking company to a high-tech operation.
The turning point came in 2015 when one of APCOA’s competitors, CP Plus, bought Ranger Services, a company APCOA relied on for automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology.
APCOA found itself increasingly competing with the company that now supplied APCOA’s ANPR services for the same contracts using the same ANPR technology. “We knew we weren’t going to be competitive if we were applying for contracts relying on a third party,” says Challis.
In 2017, Challis asked Stephen Rickett, APCOA’s head of IT, to take on a new role as director of innovation and technology with a remit to rethink APCOA’s business.
With more car park tenders specifying automatic number plate recognition, APCOA realised it needed to develop its own parking technology, says Rickett. “For me, it was really about being able to manage our priorities,” he says. “We wanted to be cheaper, quicker and faster to the market”.
Investing in the future
Challis and Rickett proposed to APCOA’s board of directors that the company should become less reliant on third-party suppliers by developing its own technology. That meant building a technology platform that was flexible enough to meet the requirements of multiple different clients, along with unpredictable future demands.
“We sat down as a group, and as a board, and said, ‘We’re going to have to invest. And we’re going to have to invest in technology that doesn’t just cater for today, but also caters for the next 10 years,” says Challis.
“We didn’t just want to replicate Ranger. We wanted a really intelligent business engine”
Kim Challis, APCOA
Their vision was to use data from ANPR to generate insights about how car parks are being used and to find ways to make them more profitable.
“We didn’t just want to replicate Ranger,” says Challis. “We wanted a really intelligent business engine.”
The second requirement was that APCOA’s parking technology had to be able to connect easily with parking kiosks, barriers and ANPR cameras from multiple suppliers already used by APCOA’s clients.
“We can’t just rip out a client’s existing equipment because the client will immediately feel like they have wasted a lot of money,” says Challis.
Third, the technology platform needed to operate in multiple languages and multiple currencies, and be able to read number plates from multiple countries, in the areas where APCOA provides parking services.
Challis says she had built up a track record of always delivering what she promised over the three years she had worked for APCOA.
“My style is always if we’re going to start something, we finish it. We don’t just do it half-heartedly, we do it properly. And I think they would have known that,” she says.
The board backed the project.
Bringing development home
Challis and Rickett took a decision early on to develop its own ANPR software in-house rather than to use external software developers and consultants.
Rickett started work on the project with one developer and APCOA’s business experts in late 2017.
Initially, Rickett built a platform at APCOA’s own datacentre in Slough, using Microsoft’s Internet Information Services web server and a Microsoft SQL database hosted on virtual machines. The site was backed up at a disaster recovery site in Harlow.
The first working demonstration of APCOA’s ANPR system took place in 2018 at a multi-storey car park in Wigan’s Grand Arcade shopping centre. APCOA christened the prototype Parkway, taking the name from an earlier project that hadn’t got off the ground.
Working with a third party, APCOA had already developed a cashless payment app, known as APCOA Connect.
The app offers drivers the ability to pay parking charges automatically by registering their car number plates, or if they prefer, by sending an SMS message or making a phone call. Another option allows drivers to pay for their parking up to 24 hours later, which is useful in car parks near hospitals where drivers may have more pressing concerns than paying for parking.
Rickett wanted to integrate Parkway with its own parking app, as well as dozens of other payment kiosks and apps used in the car park industry.
He built up a team of five developers, based in Newcastle, supplemented by two testing specialists and two product developers based in Uxbridge.
The IT team had relied on six offshore developers to integrate third-party payment apps and services into Parkway.
Rickett brought the work back in-house, replacing the six external developers with a team of three in-house developers. “I knew I would get more efficiency,” he says, despite having fewer people.
The team developed Parkway in stages, adding new functions whenever a customer requested applications that were likely to prove popular with other clients.
That meant rather than sitting on a shelf waiting for a customer to buy it, the software was always being used, says Challis. “If you had a big hospital that had a specific requirement, we would [expect there were] 10 other hospitals out there that would probably take that,” she adds.
It took discipline to keep the focus on the original development plan when clients and APCOA’s own teams were thinking up more ideas for Parkway, she says.
The product manager always had the final say regardless of whether Challis or Rickett thought the software was ready. “If the product manager was not happy, it didn’t go out,” she says.
Putting data in the cloud
By 2019, Parkway was growing and needed more computing power to process more data. Rickett began an 11-month project to move the software out of APCOA’s own datacentre and into a cloud service.
The team looked briefly at hosting Parkway on Amazon Web Services (AWS), but it made more sense to move to Microsoft Azure. APCOA’s team was used to working with Microsoft’s software and its developers were already familiar with Azure from other projects.
Rickett was clear from the outset the he wanted Microsoft to provide a platform as a service (PaaS), which would free up APCOA’s team to focus on developing applications rather than managing the technology platform.
The internal team worked in an agile way, continuously developing and updating the code, following the DevOps model. APCOA hired Rackspace to assist in migrating Parkway to the cloud. The work was complete by mid-2020.
One advantage of using the cloud service is that APCOA can quickly add new customers to the platform, says Rickett. “We can just add clients at a click of the fingers, and we can be faster to market because of that,” he says.
APCOA is currently using Parkway to offer parking services in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and has plans to deploy Parkway in Italy and Poland.
Cashless kiosks with remote access
APCOA went on to introduce more capabilities, including a “white label” service that allowed customers to add their own branding and designs to APCOA’s payment technology.
After a tender from a university, APCOA wrote software to exempt delivery drivers from paying parking charges in the university car park.
It has developed the concept further to allow any user of the software to exempt their own staff, taxis and other vehicles from paying charges.
“We had a vision where kiosks would be low maintenance. They would be cashless and paperless. Not having to deal with topping up paper and paper jams. Fewer moving parts and less to go wrong”
Stephen Rickett, APCOA
In 2020, Rickett decided that, rather than continue to rely on payment kiosks designed by third-party suppliers, APCOA would build its own customised kiosks.
“We had a vision where kiosks would be low maintenance. They would be cashless – with no coins, no notes – and paperless. Not having to deal with topping up paper and paper jams. Fewer moving parts and less to go wrong.” he says.
APCOA also wanted the ability to change the wording and designs of the display screens remotely. “The wording on the display is very important to us. It should be different for different car parks because each car park is different,” he says. “We wanted to influence the entire customer journey, every screen, every button press, and how it looks.”
APCOA bought the physical structure of the parking kiosks from Evoke Creative, a company in the Wirral, perhaps best known for supplying the kiosks used by customers to place orders for burgers and milkshakes in McDonalds.
The IT team used a Microsoft development tool, Xamarin, to program the kiosks to replicate the capabilities of its APCOA Connect parking app. The team introduced a barcode scanner that would allow car park owners to hand out promotional cards to customers offering them free or discounted parking.
APCOA is able to change the messaging on the kiosks or update parking tariffs from its control centre in a matter of minutes. Updates can be as simple as making it clear that people should pay when they leave the car park rather than when they arrive, or reminding customers that they don’t need to pay if they stay for under two hours.
It is a far cry from traditional parking kiosks, which often required an engineer to visit the machine in person with a replacement SD card to update the software.
ANPR cameras make it possible for car park owners to dispense with payment kiosks altogether, but some clients still prefer to have them. “It’s not something we push because a lot of the time car parks are tending towards digital payment tariffs, but it’s added capability,” he says. “It’s part of our armoury.”
So far, APCOA has deployed 20 of its customised kiosks. Its German car parking business has ordered five, and further interest is coming from Belgium and Poland.
ANPR means automatic barriers are no longer necessary, but for car park owners that still want them – and some do – APCOA’s team has worked with access control company FACC in Basingstoke to integrate its barriers into Parkway.
“Having that tool in our ecosystem means we can deliver a whole end-to-end solution without third-party suppliers,” says Rickett.
Over breakfast during a business conference, Rickett and Challis came up with an idea for simplifying parking payments. Challis suggested putting the technology from APCOA’s payment kiosks into a mobile phone to create a “virtual kiosk”.
The result was Scan Pay, a website customers can access by scanning a QR code to pay without having to register or download an app. The website links to Apple Pay and Google Pay, so customers can pay for their parking in a matter of seconds.
“You can pay as you are walking back to your car. You don’t have to download any apps or register for a user account if you don’t want to,” says Rickett.
In 2020, APCOA began a project to create a data warehouse to capture and analyse data gathered from the cars visiting its car parks. The project was inspired by a tender document from a client that requested a reporting dashboard to show the data coming in from ANPR readers and payments.
APCOA had software developers and analysts, but did not have any expertise in big data. It turned to a consulting company for advice on how to build a data warehouse.
The IT team decided to use Microsoft tools as far as possible to ingest data, process it and display the results of the analysis. It opted for Microsoft’s Power BI business intelligence software.
One of the biggest challenges, says Rickett, was finding ways to extract data from a diverse range of devices, including the payment kiosks used in clients’ car parks.
The team used a combination of application programming interfaces (APIs) and file transfer protocol (FTP) to take data from Parkway, and other databases hosted by APCOA, to feed into the data warehouse.
It took six months to get the data warehouse up and running.
APCOA is able to use its data warehouse to make recommendations to its clients about the optimum prices to charge. “We are able to say if you change your tariff to X you will see an upside of Y,” says Rickett. “We have client testimonials where we have increased their revenue.”
Some car park operators have introduced differential pricing, so that customers pay more at peak times or when there are fewer parking spaces available.
Data from ANPR cameras is also assisting parking wardens, or civil enforcement officers as they are known. The cameras can identify which streets are busy and which streets are quiet. APCOA is able to monitor which streets officers have patrolled and identify any streets they may have been missed.
On the day Computer Weekly visited APCOA’s offices in Uxbridge, West London, the analytics team had completed a first prototype of an emissions dashboard. It is able to show car park owners the vehicle emissions generated by their car parks by identifying car models and engine types from the number plates of visiting cars.
“It’s very early days but we have seen some interesting data from it,” says Rickett. “You are able to see how many petrol, diesel and electric vehicles there are, and we are working out what the average carbon footprint is for vehicles driving into the car park at average speeds.”
Analysis of the data can alert car park operators to trends in the number of electric vehicles parking in their car parks and show whether it makes sense to install electric charging points.
Other recommendations might include removing barriers to speed up traffic flow into the car park.
APCOA is now offering data analytics routinely in its car park management bids, in addition to offering data analytics as an additional service to existing clients.
Previously, APCOA relied on manual spreadsheets to gather data on the performance of its customers’ car parks. The data was always retrospective and did not allow the company or its clients to monitor the performance of car parks in real time.
“Most of our analytics would be a person looking at the data in spreadsheets, providing lovely graphs and charts and endless reports to endless customers and clients,” says Challis.
Parkway takes off at Heathrow
APCOA’s work on Parkway paid off in December 2020 when the company won a contract to manage charges for cars dropping off passengers visiting London’s Heathrow Airport.
“There was a lot of work to do, but from a technology point of view, the environment was already there and scalable enough to cope with the level of demand,” says Rickett.
Although APCOA provided the infrastructure and websites for Heathrow, the service is branded as a Heathrow Airport service.
One of the biggest tasks facing the IT team was to understand who, among the many contractors and staff working at Heathrow, should be exempt from paying charges. Even Heathrow Airport did not have a full list.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t send a penalty charge notice to Heathrow’s CIO,” says Rickett.
APCOA was able to roll out the system in under nine months. The project went live in late September 2021 and Heathrow began charging drivers for dropping off passengers in October 2021.
The parking company worked with engineering company Atkins to install 20 ANPR cameras at each of Heathrow’s terminals.
The system went through multiple layers of testing, by APCOA, Heathrow’s engineering partner Arup and finally Heathrow Airport itself. Work took place at night to allow the airport to function normally during the day.
Drivers can pay automatically as they visit or up to 24 hours later, by telephone, online, or through a mobile app. Taxi drivers can pay 12 months in advance.
Heathrow has created an exemption list of 50,000 vehicles, which include Heathrow staff, contractors and other visitors.
Taxi firm Addison Lee has registered 20,000 vehicles, allowing the company to receive monthly statements showing parking charges.
Automatic car parking
APCOA is now working with parking app developer Parkopedia and automotive companies, including Daimler, BMW and Skoda, to allow drivers to pay for parking using their car’s infotainment systems.
The project will make it possible for drivers to book parking bays in advance and to use car parks without having to buy a ticket. The same system will allow drivers to pay to charge electric vehicles, pay road tolls or airport drop-off charges, or buy petrol.
The next step is automated parking.
In Germany, APCOA is working with Bosch and Mercedes-Benz on technology that enables cars to park themselves in a multi-storey car park at Stuttgart Airport. The Automated Valet service allows drivers to leave their car and have it drive itself to a parking space by tapping into a smartphone app.
Bosch has installed sensors in the car park that monitor the driving route and the surroundings of the car to send navigation instructions. Mercedes-Benz vehicles are able to drive themselves up and down ramps. If the sensors in the car park detect an obstacle, the vehicle comes to a safe stop and continues once the route is clear.
Drivers can collect their car by using the app again once they return to the car park. APCOA has plans to extend the automatic parking trials to other countries.
The future of parking
APCOA’s first urban mobility hub opened in February 2023 at a multi-storey car park in the centre of Carmarthen, Wales. St Catherine’s Walk hub will offer workspaces and Wi-Fi for people to use while they charge their electric vehicles.
APCOA also plans to encourage local businesses by converting a section of the car park to offer office space for startup companies.
The company has plans for the car park to be used as a drop-off and collection point for parcels, and to work with local businesses to create pop-up shops and kiosks.
APCOA has identified a further 10 car parks for developing into urban hubs, with Sheffield and Manchester to follow.
The company is working with partners to design and install roof-based photo voltaic cell systems to power each site. It will also introduce displays to give people local information, such as live data on train, bus and taxi services, details of local events and directions to local destinations.
“We are going to assess the viability of the hubs and look at what the benefits are over the next six to nine months. I think by the end of this year we are likely to have at least three or four of the hubs up and running,” says Challis.
One likely application is to offer space to food delivery companies so that the car parks become distribution points for the surrounding area. “If you are Uber Eats or Just Eat, or delivering parcels, you could get all your packages delivered to the car park and use it as a hub,” she says.
Drivers on electric mopeds and electric scooters could take packages the last mile for final delivery, cutting down on van journeys.
Although other organisations have purpose-built hubs for parking, Challis says her strategy is to convert existing car parks.
“Other people are starting to put things like lockers and cycle parks into car parks, but actually bringing it all together as a hub concept has yet to be done,” she says.
Not every idea makes it off the drawing board. At one point, APCOA considered using car parks as locations for “dark kitchens” that would cook food to order for takeaway delivery services, like Just Eat.
But the cost of delivering water and wastewater services to car parks made the idea difficult to justify. It would have required car park owners to offer 10- or 15-year leases to the kitchen providers. That was a tall order in a business where it is difficult to predict car parking demands even five years ahead.
APCOA’s business growth
Challis says the development of Parkway has allowed the company to provide customised services to the organisations that own the car parks APCOA operates.
“We can now listen to our clients and understand what their business needs are, and we can use Parkway to configure the system to deliver on those needs,” she says.
Kim Challis, APCOA
If there are repeated requests for capabilities that are “not part of the kitbag” today, APCOA can build that into the platform in future.
The key measure of success for any car park operator is its ability not just to win new contracts but to keep existing contracts. Prior to Parkway, retention rates for contracts were running at between 80% and 85%. Today, they are between 98% and 99%. Over the same time, revenues have risen by 25%.
“We always say retention is the number one strategy for growth. If you don’t hold on to the clients that you had, there’s no point growing, right? And then we have seen a huge amount of growth on top of that,” says Challis.
APCOA’s overseas operations in Ireland, Austria, Switzerland and Germany are running Parkway. Operations in Poland and Italy will go live this year.
If there was one thing Challis would do differently, she says she would roll out Parkway more quickly. “We weren’t expecting the exponential growth we have had over the past three years, and you kind of look back and think, ‘If we’d have done this a little bit faster we would have got even more growth’,” she says.
Rickett says that if he had the chance again, he would build Parkway in the cloud first rather than in APCOA’s own datacentre. That would have sped up development time and offered higher resilience and the ability to scale the platform right from the beginning, he says.
Having a business analyst on board the development team earlier on would also have made a difference. “We didn’t do much repeat work, but we might have done things in a different order if we had had that in the beginning,” he says.
If there is one thing that still keeps Ricket awake at night it is opening a new car park. “Even though we’ve been doing it for so long, it’s still our car park, our revenues. There is a lot of focus on it.”