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Plug the meter? Forget about it

Winnipeg testing GPS device to let drivers park, walk

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Winnipeg is the first city in the world to try out a satellite-monitoring device that will eventually allow motorists to pay for parking by doing... well, absolutely nothing other than parking.

The Winnipeg Parking Authority is testing a prototype version of a GPS gadget called a Skymeter, which pings orbiting satellites to determine where it is and how long it's been there.

To solve the "wandering" associated with ordinary global positioning system units, which occasionally provide inaccurate location data, the Skymeter uses triangulation software to pinpoint a precise location.

Once the bugs are worked out, motorists could pay for parking merely by placing the device in their car and turning it on. They would then receive a parking bill based on the GPS data at the end of every month.

"You acquire the device, you put it in your car -- and you do nothing," said Dave Hill, the WPA's chief operating officer, who is trying out one of the gizmos in his own truck. A total of three are being tested in Winnipeg.

Hill was first asked to try out a GPS parking device in 2002, when he worked as a consultant in Toronto. He agreed, but didn't hear from the inventors he calls "mad scientists" until years later, after he moved to Winnipeg.

As it turns out, this city is an ideal Skymeter testing ground, given its sprawling layout and the relative absence of the tall buildings that can interfere with satellite signals.

Winnipeg is already one of several Canadian cities to employ cellphone-enabled parking, which allows motorists to pay for parking by merely phoning in a location and paying by pre-registered credit card.

GPS parking would eliminate the need to do anything other than flip on a switch, assuming motorists are willing to pay $40 or $50 for the device itself.

J.D. Hassan, Skymeter's vice-president of business development, said his company would probably sell the gadget below cost to place it in the hands of consumers, the same way smartphones are sold right now.

The device also has pay-as-you-drive applications for heavily congested European countries where politicians are considering radical means of getting more people out of their cars, Hassan said. It could also eliminate the need for both conventional and electronic toll booths.

But in Winnipeg, the long-term plan for Skymeter only involves parking. The WPA plans to test about 10 of the finished models next year and would make the technology available across the city if Skymeter demonstrates they actually work.

The final product will employ software to ensure it only transmits billing information, not actual locations, which would pose huge privacy concerns in most western countries, Hassan said. While the technology has obvious espionage and military applications, Skymeter is only interested in the consumer market.

"This won't be used to write parking tickets or track where you've been," said Hill, staring at a Google Earth display that shows he parked at St. Vital Shopping Centre. "I went to New York Fries and bought a hotdog. I live a very exciting life."

Such displays are only being used during the testing phase, Hassan assured.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2009 B1

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