Where Industry Meets Innovation

  • Contact Us
  • sign in Sign In
  • Sign in with certificate
mit campus


Search News

  • View All
  • ILP News
  • MIT Research News
  • MIT Sloan Management Review
  • Technology Review
  • Startup Exchange

ILP Institute Insider

August 31, 2015

Discovering Smart Rules of the Road

MIT’s Marta González and BMW’s Mark Leach drive research for sustainable mobility services.

Eric Bender

If you commute into San Francisco by car, parking can be a daily battle. ParkNow, an app from BMW i Mobility services, can help out by pinpointing open spaces in parking garages that best suit your needs. “You just pick the parking garage that is closest to your final destination, or cheapest, and you also can filter by availability or services like easy charging stations,” says Mark Leach, former chief marketing officer of ParkNow. (Mark Leach now serves as global head of aftersales communication for BMW and MINI.) “You can reserve a spot in a garage and go straight to it.”

Research collaborators Marta Gonzalez of MIT and Mark Leach of BMW.
Moreover, with help from Big Data traffic research led by MIT associate professor Marta González, “we can optimize your whole trip,” says Leach.

González, who leads the Human Mobility and Networks Lab in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, trained in statistical physics. Today, instead of figuring patterns of interactions between physical bodies, she analyzes the giant data sets spun off by mobile phone networks. “This is not continuous perfect information,” she notes, but it includes a wealth of information about how people move and communicate on a daily basis.

The use of mobile phone data is a game-changer for modeling traffic demand. Before these data sets were available, “usually you would interview 1% of the population to know how they traveled,” González says. “Now there is a data-driven model of how people interact with these spaces; we use this imperfect data source to get results that are validated and can be used as a new mobility model of a city.”

These powerful new mobility models can be leveraged to minimize not just traffic congestion and driver frustration but carbon dioxide emissions, Leach emphasizes.

In the case of ParkNow, the mobility model also helps the garages significantly improve their operations. “Usually the parking industry has a very general idea about their customers and their parking areas,” Leach notes. “Now we know exactly when and how people are coming to a certain place, and we can customize our products according to the mobility patterns.” For instance, garages can time their early-bird parking specials for the traffic specific to each garage, or tailor their billboard ads for the routes their customers actually take.

“The parking business isn’t known for a lot of innovations, but we have a chance to really change the whole business, leapfrogging from the Stone Age to the Digital Age,” Leach says.

Driving Successful Teamwork
Collaboration between the BMW and MIT groups began in 2012, when ParkNow was in an early stage “and we needed to have a little bit more data available,” recalls Leach.

“It was a perfect opportunity to test the applications of our method and to have the results make an impact beyond scientific publications and the lab,” says González. “So that was a win-win situation.”

The team’s pragmatic approach has been essential. “Marta and her team always make sure that the research has practical applications,” Leach says. “A very flexible approach also was a key to success; we changed the approach over and over again, to meet the scientific goals and the daily operation’s down-to earth goals.”

“After we measure everything we have on this network of users and find a nice mathematical result, we have the challenge of, how are the garages going to use it?” says González. As they learned to translate the results of their work for use in this business, the MIT researchers also generated a new visual tool that helps to explain and explore their results. ParkNow offered the first testbed for this visualization platform, which has continued to evolve and last year won an MIT Big Data Challenge prize.

“We had some level of a common language that made us pursue the collaboration with BMW, and that increased when the results came and more opportunities emerged,” adds González. “I also like working with BMW’s team a lot because their understanding of innovation to me is amazing. They always have the big view and they are ready to jump into new things.”

Seeking Sustainability
ParkNow is one of a suite of offerings in BMW i Mobility services. Other apps, such as the DriveNow car-sharing service or MyCityWay city guide, “also help people getting from point A to B, whatever their preference is,” Leach says. “If they want to travel in a very sustainable way, we’ve got an answer for that. If they want to travel very fast or in an inexpensive way, we have a solution for that.”

“This is a perfect match between BMW and MIT, because at the end of the day it’s about sustainability, and that’s the main focus of BMW i,” he says. “There are two pillars to that. On the first pillar we’ve got electric and hybrid cars. On the second pillar we’ve got the electronic mobility services. They all have the ability to reduce CO2 emissions.”

As one possible extension of their work, the BMW and MIT groups are brainstorming about building a city model that would study the effect of mobility measures in greater depth and with greater precision. “For instance, if you add a couple of hundred car-sharing fleet vehicles, or add a parking service like ParkNow, each of those measures might reduce the city’s total CO2 emission by a certain percentage,” Leach says. “Right now everybody is talking about the impact of mobility services, but there are only rough numbers out there.”

“We can model the demand, we can validate the resulting volumes in the streets, and we can explore recommendations,” sums up González. “The great issue as an engineer and as a citizen is, how can we provide better mobility solutions so we can live in better cities?”