QR Codes in Parking: What’s all the fuss?

It seems nowadays that a person can barely turn around without hearing about QR codes.  This is especially true in parking.  But, what’s all the fuss about?  What is a QR code?  It is really just an encrypted piece of information.  And I only say ‘encrypted’ because it is not readable to a human.  In reality it’s not encrypted at all – it’s just coded.  But, the fact that the information is not readable to a human presents the main problem to the abundant overuse of the QR code.

While driving from Atlanta to Charlotte, my colleagues spotted a giant QR code billboard, which triggered this article on the overuse of QR.  I’m positive that some MBA holding marketing wizard got extremely excited with their QR code billboard idea, but I’m also positive the excitement will diminish rapidly when the wizard finds that their return on investment ended up close to nil.  Just think about it.  Who is going to pull their car over to open a QR code reading application in order to find out what that QR code is all about?  I’m guessing the only people on the roadside are other MBA degree holding marketing wizards.  Rami Sayar, in his excellent blog post on the overuse of QR codes explains some other issues, many of which are valid with respect to the parking industry as well.

As pointed out earlier, my main issue with QR codes and parking is that some data is unnecessarily encoded and now no longer readable to a human.  As we all know, the parking industry is trying to move toward automation, and this may be part of the reason for the hype surrounding QR in the industry.  Automation = machines.  And machines can read QR codes.  But, as we all know, machines can also read text (License Plate Recognition, etc), so it seems this point is null and void.  The only thing that is accomplished by using a QR code in this regard is that the data is rendered unreadable to a human without a machine, and that presents a lot of potential problems for the parker and the parking operator.

But, you ask, can’t someone make a really cool smartphone app that reads a QR code.  And the answer is YES!  But smartphone market adoption is no where near 100%. Is it really easier for those smartphone users to scan in a QR code, or is it even easier for them to enter in the data being hidden within the QR Code?  What does the parker without a smartphone do?  What if smartphone’s camera becomes damaged?  What happens when the QR code peels in half or gets dirt all over it (we all know that parking lots are not to be mistaken for laboratory clean rooms)?   These are serious problems, with no easy answer.

If you look back at the history of the parking industry, we have already seen a product very similar to QR codes.  They are called barcodes.  Yes, I’m being ridiculous here, because a QR code is a barcode as we all know.  But, I think this point has become lost in the shuffle.  QR codes are superior to traditional barcodes because they hold more data in the same amount of space, and because they can be read faster.  But, step back for a moment.  How much data do we really need to hold in a barcode when it relates to parking?  What would be encoded in that QR code?  I could think of a few examples.  Maybe the QR is a code that identifies a parking location, or a parking entry or exit lane.  Maybe the code represents a parking zone and space, or a reservation number.  Beyond this, it seems the uses for QR are limited (although I’m still thinking hard on the subject).  So, why didn’t this ever become popular before with traditional barcodes?  These traditional barcodes hold more than enough space to tell you what location you are in, or what space you are in.  Let’s take a look at how much information a traditional barcode can hold.

A Code 128 barcode can actually hold quite a bit of information.  It can represent 103 data symbols per character.  So a single character barcode can represent 103 unique items.  A two character Code 128 can  represent 10609 unique items.   Let’s take it out to 5 characters….  that would give us 11,592,740,743 unique entities that could be represented with our 5 digit barcode.  How many spaces and locations do you manage?  So, why didn’t this barcode dominate the parking industry much like QR code has been predicted to?  Well, it’s because its use was found to be limited to ticketing and identification, where the barcode replaced punch data or magswipe data on a ticket for some manufacturers.  There was no other use that was found for this great technology.  So if ticketing is the only good use for barcodes, and ticketing is losing market share because of other identification methods (credit card in/out, LPR, RFID), then what is all the fuss about?

I’ll leave you with an actual sample of Code 128 vs QR Code and I’ll ask the reader: Is this technological leap going to change our industry?

Encoding zone and space information:  (Zone 1424 Space 234, represented inefficiently as “Z1424 S234” in both Code 128 and QR formats)

Full disclosure:  PassportParking has found one use where QR is a nice technology.  We currently use QR to provide a download link for our smartphone application.  (Right below a section that explains how to download the app manually)  And we love technology, so we’ll keep on thinking about more uses.