Can't find your car? This mall knows where it is

A shopping mall in California resorts to license plate scanning to help forgetful drivers find their parked cars.

Liane Yvkoff
Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer who blogs about cars for CNET Car Tech. E-mail Liane.
Liane Yvkoff
2 min read

For all the apps, gadgets, and gizmos on the market, a simple solution to finding a your car in a large parking lot is still a tall order. A Los Angeles mall seems to have figured out a way to reduce the number of wandering car owners with keys in hand searching for their vehicles, but it borrows technology normally reserved for government agencies.

License plate scanners are widely used by police departments to help locate stolen vehicles, or by transportation agencies to snag drivers who breeze through tolls without paying. But a few shopping malls are now using them to help people remember where they parked their car.

Santa Monica Place is one of the latest shopping malls in California to use license plate scanners. A system of networked high-resolution cameras record the license plate of parked cars along with their location. When a shopper can't remember where they parked their car, they can key in their license plate in a kiosk that will tell them on which floor and row their vehicle is parked. It's a high-tech solution to an age-old problem and reduces the demand for mall security to drive around forgetful owners until they finally spot their parked car, but some privacy advocates say that it's a little overkill.

Users enter either a full or partial license plate on the kiosk screen and the system shows where the car is parked.
Users enter either a full or partial license plate on the kiosk screen, and the system shows where the car is parked. Park Assist

Although the kiosk information is intended for car owners only, there's nothing stopping jealous exes or other stalkers from using the device to keep tabs on where drivers have been. I can see a valid use for this technology (especially in airport long-term parking), but just because there's no expectation of privacy on the open road, it shouldn't mean any Joe off the street can look up license plates to find out who's been where. In fact, the kiosk works with just a partial license plate, requiring only the first few letters or numbers to return matches. Adding a security layer, such as making the kiosk accessible only to security personnel, is needed to solve this dilemma.

And license plate scanners aren't the perfect solution--they've been known to misread license plate numbers. It's also much harder to remember the numbers of a license plate than the floor on which you parked your car.