Though Los Angeles drivers might spend hours per week searching for parking, the truth is that the city actually has an abundance of parking spaces. In fact, according to one study, L.A. has enough parking spaces to cover all of Manhattan.
Alex Israel, CEO of Venice-based Metropolis Technologies, decided it was time to make use of more of that space for purposes other than storage of inactive vehicles. It’s perhaps a surprising point of view, considering Metropolis is the developer of an automated payment platform for parking facilities.
However, Israel said the technology offered by Metropolis will make parking more efficient, eliminating the need for excess spaces that go unused for most of the day.
“[Parking] is never the highest and best use for land,” said Israel. “Lots of that land can be repatriated by the community, for parks and for community centers.”
Israel said space that remains in use for parking could in the future become much more actively utilized, as more electric and autonomous vehicles and micromobility devices hit the market.
“Think about the cleaning, servicing, charging and deployment [of vehicles],” he said. “Someone will need to convert the infrastructure to empower all future modes of mobility.”
Rethinking Parking's Use of Space
How does Metropolis fit in with all this? The company’s technology allows drivers to access parking facilities without obtaining a ticket or paying at a booth or kiosk. Vehicles registered in the company’s database can simply go in and out; the owner’s credit card is charged automatically.
For most users, the system’s appeal will mainly be its convenience. But Israel said the real-time information gathering necessary to make the payment platform usable will be a tremendous asset to parking lot owners and operators, who can get a better sense of how to maximize the value of a given parking facility.
“We look at a [parking] facility and we say, ‘it’s only occupied 35% of the time; how do we fill it?’” said Israel. “Maybe we can deploy vehicle charging [stations] or micrologistics or the staging of vehicles for a delivery service.”
Israel said that parking lots and garages are ideal locations for such uses. A major obstacle to that vision is property owners, who currently have no way of knowing the capacity of specific lots in real time. With a database of parking structures constantly being updated with information about available space, Israel said Metropolis is in a position to facilitate more efficient uses of these facilities by sharing occupancy information with a wide range of potential users.
To that end, the company last month announced a partnership with Uber Technologies which will allow users of the Uber app to enter their license plate information in order to park at garages that employ Metropolis' platform.
Israel said Metropolis is pursuing similar arrangements with a wide range of partners—from scooter companies to delivery services—in order to ensure facilities are being used to maximum potential.
Pointing to studies showing that drivers cruising for parking constitute as many as one-third of all drivers on the road in urban areas, Israel said that making parking facilities more efficient and visible to car owners could also alleviate traffic congestion by making it easier and more convenient to pull into a lot or garage rather than circling around looking for street parking.
Democratizing Parking Data
Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said the most straightforward way to cut down on congestion is by ensuring fewer cars are on the road in the first place. Still, he notes that new technology like that offered by Metropolis has a role to play in eliminating some of the most obvious and wasteful impracticalities associated with parking.
“These apps are addressing the issue where you only know about parking you can see,” said Matute.
In dense areas like downtown Los Angeles, a parking spot can feel impossible to locate. In fact, Matute said, parking in the area is abundant, but much of it is concealed in garages where pricing varies considerably.
“From the street you can’t see onto level five of a parking structure,” said Matute. “This contributes to a perception of scarcity. Even if 70% of spaces in a district were available, if all the on-street parking and the first floors of lots were full, it could make someone think ‘oh, there can’t be any parking'.”
If real-time occupancy data and pricing information from parking facilities was widely available, it could make drivers more likely to fill spots that are now underutilized due simply to the fact that drivers don’t know about them.
Matute said making parking facilities more convenient for drivers to access could also make it possible to convert more on-street parking to other uses, like outdoor dining, curbside pickup and delivery and bike and scooter storage.
“Those are great uses for on-street spaces,” said Matute. “The urban planner’s dream is to have all that in the curb zone, and put any car that’s staying more than 15 minutes off-street.”
In order for this to work in practice, however, parking and transportation apps must be able to offer a wealth of information to drivers, Matute said. For Metropolis, that means ensuring its platform is used in as many parking facilities as possible.
Israel said the company’s technology is already being used in close to 300 locations, and agreements are in place for it to be adopted at 600 facilities nationwide.
That’s far from ubiquitous, but the company only publicly launched in February, after spending a little over three years in stealth mode. With more than $60 million raised to date, Israel said the focus for the company is now on scaling up and expanding to new locations.
There may be some growing pains along the way. In November, Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus criticized the company’s user data collection policies outlined in its app and speculated that the startup’s eventual aim could be to sell valuable user location and browsing data to advertisers.
Israel said Metropolis collects user data necessary for the functionality of its service and that drivers do not have to download the app in order to park at facilities using its payment platform. The company does not sell user data to advertisers and has no plans to do so, he added.
Instead, said Israel, Metropolis generates revenue through contracts with parking lot owners and through collection of service fees charged at some facilities.
Israel said this will continue to be the company’s business model for the foreseeable future, as it looks to continue bringing new facilities into its system in the year ahead.
“This has been a massive year for growth,” said Israel. “It’s really such an exciting time to be part of the mobility landscape.”
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It's been a busy year for Ring, the home security giant best known for its video doorbells. In January, Ring rolled out the Ring Video Doorbell Wired, its smallest and least expensive doorbell yet. The Santa Monica-based company also unveiled an end-to-end encryption feature that adds an additional layer of protection to videos captured by a user's device. And Ring is now working on additional features, including a pet tracking system and a roving camera that can be remotely activated by customers to investigate disturbances.
But as Ring expands its user base, it is also drawing increased scrutiny from privacy and social justice advocates who are concerned about the Amazon-owned subsidiary's partnerships with law enforcement agencies and reports of racial profiling by users of Ring's Neighbors app.
Ring Chief Technology Officer Josh Roth spoke to dot.la about Ring's product development process and how his company approaches privacy and neighborhood safety.
Since the Amazon acquisition, Ring has developed some integrations with the Alexa system and other Amazon products. Are there ways this relationship may become even closer in the future?
Ring Chief Technology Officer Josh Roth
At the end of the day it comes down to what we call a "better together" story. From our side, we can create better solutions and systems that aggregate devices in your home and give you a better way of leveraging those devices together—whether that's interactions between an alarm system and a light, or your Alexa acting as a sensor for other things. There's a tremendous amount of work to continue to iterate and improve on that. No doubt about it, there will be future integrations that continue to enhance that experience.
How much do you see Ring as a smart home company vs. a home security company? Are there ways you might use the tech stack you've developed in ways that move away from the home security focus you've had thus far?
Our mission is to make neighborhoods safer. I don't see that mission changing. We are a safety and security company. With that being said, things you may not think of as safety and security at the end of the day can become part of a safety and security system. An example of that would be anything that can give awareness about the state of a home. Your thermostat has home and away modes so that it can turn itself hotter or cooler depending on whether someone is at home. If you can integrate that into an IoT system to leverage that awareness and tie it to your alarm system, there's tremendous benefit for your safety and security. There's not always this cut-and-dry IoT space and safety and security space. The reality is that if you do things correctly, they actually merge into one.
And of course as more of these functions become automated, there's going to be growing concern about security. There have been some horror stories about hackers being able to spy on families through their Ring systems. How are you alleviating concerns that someone might gain access to a customer's footage?
Privacy and security are really foundational to everything we build. We start with a security and privacy-first mindset and then we try to introduce those features to our customers, and we try to do it in the quickest fashion possible. If you take a look back historically, Ring was the first in the safety and security space to require two-step verification; we were the first to introduce end-to-end encryption. Ring has never been breached, but we put things in place constantly to improve on security. Where we have to, we put in tighter controls. But when we do it, we make it extremely transparent to the customer. From my perspective, security is of the utmost importance, and I think everyone at Ring and Amazon would tell you the same thing.
You rolled out the end-to-end encryption feature earlier this year, but it's turned off by default. Why make it an opt-in setting rather than an opt-out?
End-to-end encryption implies that there's a key that can only be used by a very specific system or user. It requires us to actually turn off some features that our users actually like to have, because those keys can't be shared in all situations. For example, with the iteration of end-to-end encryption out there today you can't have a shared user. The reason for that is key management and how you would actually hand those keys off that shared user for a temporary or permanent amount of time, and which videos you would give access to. We opted to give something that was the most stringent control we could at launch, and to give the users asking for that the ability to turn it on—with the intent of iterating over time and adding more features like shared users.
There's a handful of items like that. Another use case would be a third-party integration. If you use Alexa, for example, to do video recall or to see who's at the front door, they don't have the keys because we don't have a method to pass the keys from a user's phone to Alexa devices. It would break our user promise around encryption and privacy. We really wanted to focus on the beginning experience of end-to-end encryption being as tight as we could, and then adding to it over time based on customer feedback.
How do you balance privacy concerns with the desire to give customers access to new features?
The baseline default experience that a user gets is the highest level of security that can be provided, and we constantly iterate and improve on that. I look at end-to-end encryption as an advanced security feature. I use the analogy of a hotel room. You have the top lock and you lock the door and you put the sign on the door. You may find you don't necessarily need all that, but it gives you peace of mind. So we want to offer that to our users. But the default standard encryption we provide still provides encryption in transit and encryption at rest. And we always examine it to see if we can improve on that. There is a tradeoff between end-to-end encryption and some of the features we know our users like. But I can tell you as a promise from Ring: We will always push toward providing more security and more options for our users with increased transparency. Any time we add something new they are going to have awareness of it. Any time we give them something around security, we're going to give them a choice to enable those items or not.
You mentioned that Ring's goal is to make neighborhoods safer. Is there an evaluation process as you add features to ensure that you are meeting this goal?
We believe in the power of the community and the power of the neighborhood. We also believe in the privacy of the neighborhood. In addition to privacy shutters on our cameras, we also have privacy zones. When you set up a motion zone, you can block out certain areas to respect the privacy of your neighbors if you choose to do so. Again, it's all put in the hands of customers for customer choice.
We also work with public safety agencies. We've been a great resource for COVID-19 information. We work with local fire and police departments. What that means is they have the ability to request videos (through the Neighbors app). They provide requests in a public way so that everyone is completely aware and it's transparent to the entire community what's being asked of them.
Those partnerships with law enforcement have been controversial. Are there ways you approach product development to ensure devices aren't being used as tools for mass surveillance?
Everything we do is customer first. Our customers are the neighbors who live in those neighborhoods. Our customer is not the police department. It's not the fire department. Our customer is the user who has a home, who's putting a Ring doorbell on their house. We start with that premise, and we build everything around that from a privacy and security perspective. Any time that there's anything involving a public safety agency, users have a choice and it's entirely up to them when and if they share information, when and if they share videos, when and if they work with those agencies. We've seen nothing but positive things come out of that. Kidnappings have been solved because of people working with neighborhood agencies. Neighbor advocates are helping track down things like package theft. We're big believers in people working together. We're big believers in customer choice.
Is there a limit to customer choice? Ring has said in the past it won't use facial recognition technology. What if customers want it? And are there other features that may be off the table?
It's a hard question to answer because I can't predict the future of what I haven't built yet. What I can tell you is we don't use facial recognition on any of our devices or services and we will never sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement. Privacy is so important to us. Anything we build will include these strong privacy protections for our neighbors.
We go through privacy reviews, legal reviews, customer reviews, and internal discussions. We make decisions as to whether we think the items we want to build meet the mission to make neighborhoods safer. Is it in the customer's best interest? Is it providing additional privacy, security, and transparency to the customer? If we can say yes to all of those things, I think we are able to build them. If we have question marks, we don't build them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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