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WPS,  Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR)

When automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) was first introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, it promised to transform the parking experience.

Visitors could book their parking in advance, progress to the barrier (assuming a barrier was even needed), and their car would be instantly ‘recognised’ and access granted, eliminating the need for tickets altogether. Large, purpose-built cameras were installed at entry points and customers – initially at least – welcomed the ‘convenience’ that ANPR delivered.

Only, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Almost immediately, the inherent faults with ANPR were exposed. Whereas an ANPR system might recognise 95% of all license plates in perfect lighting and ideal weather, its reliability fell off dramatically in environments that were not so ideal, or when the plates were obscured with muck and dirt. Drivers became frustrated; inconvenienced. The promised ‘experience’ was not delivered, at least not the experience that the car park operators envisaged.

Part of the problem in those early days was that ANPR was ‘over sold’; the reliability of the technology was not where it needed to be. Even today, with smarter, more intelligent systems that make allowances for partially obscured characters, 100% recognition 100% of the time is a utopia that cannot be reached. Even if 99% of all cars are recognised, as some manufacturers might claim, that leaves one out of a hundred stranded, and in a busy car park with a flow of two or three thousand cars on a Bank Holiday or Christmas weekend, that’s twenty or thirty disgruntled customers, whose unhappy experience is also impacting the experience of those around them as they hit the ‘help’ button to seek assistance.

This is not to say, however, that ANPR does not have place in parking. It does. When used as an additional feature, for regular and pre-booked customers, and to collect data on car park usage, it can be incredibly effective. But it should not be relied upon alone. Indeed any solution that requires a license plate to be identified, or perhaps remembered by the car owner, is likely to have flaws, much as any system that does not have barriers can often leave the customer bemused, and an operator with a problem of subsequent enforcement when a correct payment has not been made.

The basis of any parking solution is that it must be easy for any and all customers to use, regardless of age or demographic. It has to be reliable in all weather conditions and at all times, and speed up rather than delay visitors from entering/departing the car park.

If the technology has a feature that allows barcoded tickets to be validated (perhaps in return for a retail/café discount to build customer loyalty) then that too is an advantage, as is the ability to pay using the latest payment mechanisms, including contactless or via smartphone. Rather than solely depending on ANPR to provide ‘ticketless’ operation, when this is seen as an advantage, the latest ticket-based Pay on Foot systems have also now evolved to accept various contactless cards not only as payment, but also as a ‘smart’ entry and exit ticket.

From an operator’s point of view, opting for a reliable and easy to use technology will always provide the best basis for convenience and user satisfaction and, ultimately, a better return on investment.

WPS is a business of Imtech Traffic & Infra, the global providers of technical solutions within the transport environment.

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