January 03, 2011, 8:29 AM — Think the 21st century hasn't delivered all the futuristic miracles you expected? Maybe you haven't tried parking in the notoriously congested streets of the Toulouse lately.
Since October, drivers in France's fourth-largest city have been able to battle traffic snarled by narrow streets and a desperate shortage of parking spaces by using their cell phones to find open spots.
The app is driven by technology from French startup Lyberta and CNES (Centre Nationale d'Etudes Spatiales) the French space agency that is based in Toulouse.
The system is based on thousands of sensors buried just under the pavement that detect changes in the electromagnetic environment around them and communicate the results via ordinary coaxial cable.
CNES developed the technology for stratospheric balloons it planned to use to explore the planet Venus, without loading them down with heavy communications gear.
Budget cuts grounded the Venus gig, but has been justifying itself helping reduce the number of cars idling and cruising slowly looking for parking spots -- which the French government blames for 60 percent of urban pollution in the country.
The 3,000 sensors, buried about nine inches apart, are able to pinpoint open parking spots within 980 feet and send an alert to a server, which makes the information available in real time to drivers using a special app on their smart phones.
The Toulouse city government plans to eventually use data from the sensors to analyze traffic and parking patterns, and identify cars that have illegally occupied the same space for longer than six hours.
That will let the city issue parking tickets more easily. More importantly, according to city officials quoted in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, it will help the city reclaim the 97 percent of its 15,000 parking spots that are monopolized by illegal long-term parkers who cause air pollution and parking headaches for their fellow citizens.