NFC Pays for Parking With HonkTAP

Technology company Honk Mobile has teamed up with Smartrac and Apple to create a system for users to tap a phone against an NFC sticker to make a payment within seconds, without requiring the downloading of an app.
Published: August 2, 2019

Private and college parking organizations, as well as municipalities, have been deploying a new payment solution this spring and summer that allows users to pay for their parking space with the tap of their smartphone, without the need for an app or the inputting of many details about their payment information. The NFC functionality, as part of Canadian technology company Honk Mobile‘s HonkTap solution, was developed with the support of Apple, and using Smartrac‘s 13.56 MHz NFC tags. The solution is now being deployed in some private parking lots throughout the United States and is already in use across Canada, says Tony La, Honk Mobile’s CTO.

Honk Mobile was launched about five years as a parking app that provided a way for individuals to avoid the queues at payment terminals in parking areas, and to simply make pay for their parking online. Users typically would employ geolocation to find the parking lot app for their area, search for an address, find the location within a map or enter a unique zone ID displayed on signage in the lot.

These days, Honk Mobile’s app is in use across Canada and in parts of the United States, at colleges and universities, as well as in private and municipal parking lots. Municipalities are also starting to deploy the app for phone-based payments. However, the traditional system could be cumbersome and time-consuming for individuals trying to pay for their parking and continue on their way.

Recently, La recalls, Apple approached Honk Mobile with a suggestion for how to enable Apple Pay NFC payments so that users could pay for their parking more easily. With NFC, an individual could simply tap his or her phone against an NFC-enabled decal affixed to a meter, wall or pillar, and then complete the transaction via Apple Pay. That could be accomplished, he explains, without requiring an app to be downloaded.

In January of this year, La says, Apple and Honk Mobile connected with Smartrac so the companies could discuss the use of NFC tags. Smartrac specifically developed its Block On-Metal NFC tags to meet Honk’s needs for improved read range, which provides the benefit of a larger and easier-to-locate read-point for consumers tapping the tag with their smartphones, according to Art Barton, Smartrac’s regional business-development manager. The tag is designed to be versatile so that it can operate in any parking environment. It comes with NXP Semiconductors‘ SLIX2 IC for greater read range, with optimized tuning for on-metal surfaces, Barton says, adding that it is also effective on other surfaces.

Smartrac has been working on a variety of NFC-based solutions that could also be used with Apple Pay. “We’ve started bringing our technology to a variety of vertical applications and end-user developers,” Barton states, “with Honk Mobile being one of the first ones on an applications side.” When Honk Mobile released HonkTap, it was designed to work with both iOS- and Android-based devices, and to operate with both NFC and QR codes, he notes. Each decal has an NFC tag built into it, along with printed instructions on the front to advise drivers how to pay for their parking. As the decal is installed, operators can use their mobile phone to link the decal with its specific location.

The methods can vary slightly depending on the needs of a parking operator, La says. If an individual does not want to download an app, he or she doesn’t have to. If the NFC functionality is operating on that person’s Android or iOS phone, he or she can simply proceed to a decal in the parking lot and tap the phone. The phone will then open the Honk Mobile site, where the user will be asked to input a license plate number and select a payment method: Apple Pay, PayPal, Google Pay or a credit card. The process is designed to be easy to use, La reports, and with the transaction completed within seconds.

Users who want further support can download the Honk Mobile app, which will provide additional options. For instance, if an individual often parks at a specific lot, he or she can buy an unlimited plan with the lot, or simply keep license plate information on file to make the process faster. The app can also enable individuals to receive a notice when their paid parking time is set to expire, as well as invite them to make another payment if they plan to be away from the car for additional time.

If an individual’s parking payment expires, the parking operator can view that data in real time. The operator can also gain analytical data, such as when the lot is crowded and how long people park there, and then adjust pricing accordingly, for instance. Honk Mobile can access the parking data as well, and La says he reviews the number of new tags that are commissioned each day, as well as the number of payment transactions. “I get a report every day,” he states, “seeing how many are getting configured and how many transactions there are.”

At one university, Honk Mobile found that during the first week, 5 percent of those parking at the lot used the HonkTAP NFC solution. By the third week, the percentage rose to 16 percent, and it is now closer to 25 percent as users realize the NFC-based payment option is available and learn how to use it. “It’s so much easier than lining up a photo” for a QR code, Barton explains.

“Previously,” La says, “people had to download apps, type in numbers—this is bridging that gap.” The small transactions of parking payments, he adds, serve as a good use case for these kinds of payments, for their speed and convenience. The highest use rates are in places where queues often form at payment terminals, such as busy lots in areas near farmers’ markets or other heavily trafficked locations. It is being used especially often by iPhone users, the company reports. The NFC tag designed for parking meters measures 3 inches by 3 inches, Barton reports, while the large NFC tags are designed to be applied to a poster or affixed to a wall within a covered parking area, for example, and measure 13.5 inches long by 8.5 inches wide.

The 1-millimeter-thick on-metal tag is thinner than traditional tags designed with non-metal spacers, Barton says, such as foam. It uses a thin layer of ferrite, he adds, and by utilizing the HF 15693 ISO standard (rather than NFC’s ISO 14443 standard), it achieves approximately the same read range as a tag that has a 6-millimeter spacer, so that it can be read effectively by both iOS- and Android-based devices.

The decal in which the tag is built is provided by WS Packaging Group, due to its ability to work with NFC technology and provide weather resistance. So while Smartrac produces the HF and NFC labels, WS Packaging Group accomplishes the converting, printing and encoding of ach decal.

While the solution is now deployed across Canada (a total of approximately 10,000 decals are currently in use), it is also being launched in Milwaukee, Wis., Houston, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y. The first installations took place at the University of Victoria, in Vancouver, B.C., during a two-month pilot conducted this past spring. As the company expands throughout the United States and Canada, La says, “I think we’re just scratching the surface” for parking solution opportunities. “This is the next step in how the physical world is going to be connected to the digital world.”