Laurens Eckelboom gives Dutch chamber members a tour of ParkMobile's Midtown offices. Photo courtesy of NACCSE.

While the tech sector fawns over Google Glass, Apple Watch and other “smart” accessories that adorn your body, the Atlanta arm of Dutch mobile payment app ParkMobile sees an increasingly connected future for the “largest wearable”: the car.

New car models have already become rolling computers outfitted with sensors and beacons that allow them to wirelessly relay information on driving habits and vehicle performance, but in the future they will be even more involved in commercial transactions. 

And it’s not only parking. Fast-food drive-thrus and gas stations are among the many places where companies are already testing the connected car’s effectiveness as a four-wheeled payments engine.

“Vehicles are morphing into smartphones on wheels, and yes, you can pay with it too,” said Laurens Eckelboom, the Dutch-born chief strategy officer for ParkMobile International, which handles everything outside Europe for the company. 

ParkMobile, which operates an app that allows users to find and pay for parking spaces through their smartphones, is looking beyond handheld devices to the days of in-dash integration. It has announced pilot programs with companies like Ford and Volvo, envisioning a future where the car knows your destination and, once nearby, uses GPS and notifications to guide the driver to an available space. To complete the transaction, the car is provided with credentials allowing it to access to the lot, and an embedded mechanism seamlessly handles payment, no swiping or tapping required. 

ParkMobile is looking toward the future of the connected car.
ParkMobile is looking toward the future of the connected car. Photo by Nicolien Eckelboom Photography

“(Manufacturers) want you to interact more with your dashboard,” Mr. Eckelboom said at a lunch-and-learn for the Netherlands-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast. “They are crazy that they can’t control the parking experience, and 97 percent of the time, the car is not on a journey — it’s parked.”

While it may not seem to make sense to reinvent the wheel when consumers have smartphones in their pockets, auto makers are unwilling to cede their dashboards to tech giants, he says. Especially with the likes of Google and Apple getting into the car business, traditional players are turning more to their own technology to set their cars apart and solidify customer loyalty, called “stickiness” in the sector. 

“We call it the smartphone-ification of society,” said Mr. Eckelboom, who sees the five-year-old mobile payments company as sitting at the intersection of a variety of trends: increased urbanization, the rise of the sharing economy and the digitization of commerce. 

While seemingly mundane, parking is of fundamental concern to how cities function. Few agencies locally ignite more ire than the notorious Park Atlanta, and TV shows like “Parking Wars” illustrate the angst with which citizens view enforcement authorities that sometimes use revenue from violations to fund public services. 

It’s an environmental and productivity issue as well: According to some estimates, up to 30 percent of surface congestion (and corresponding emissions) in cities comes from cars searching for parking. And more time in traffic means less time working or enjoying leisure activities, squeezing the economy from opposite ends. Also, a reputation for choked traffic can dent cities’ rankings on quality-of-life. 

ParkMobile hopes to smooth out the process of paying for parking and better match supply with demand. The company allows municipalities and private parking operators to layer its mobile payment solution on top of their existing meters.

Users pay through a credit card, a prepaid wallet or Paypal account stored within the app. The company charges a transaction fee for the convenience. In some cases, users can re-up on their parking remotely — virtually feeding the meter to avoid tickets. While some cities worry about lost revenue from infractions, Mr. Eckelboom says the app also encourages greater compliance. In most cities, revenues per space have gone up. 

For all the futurism discussed at the event, the company faces the very present challenge of solidifying its lead nascent market for mobile payments for parking, as well as growing the space overall. Of the 45 million paid parking spots in the U.S., only 3 million or so are mobile-enabled, with ParkMobile the dominant player owning about half that market. 

Recent developments in mobile payments in general — particularly with Samsung, Apple and Google piling into the space, consolidating early digital wallets — are promising, but people won’t be ditching their plastic anytime soon. Forrester Research estimates that mobile payments nearly triple from $50 billion last year to $142 billion in 2019, but that’s still a drop in the bucket of U.S. consumer spending. 

“It will happen — not now, but slowly,” Mr. Eckelboom said. 

Perhaps most illustrative of that point: Pulling into the building that houses the modern Midtown offices ParkMobile designed to draw millennial talent, drivers are greeted with a drab sign: Parking: CASH ONLY. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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