Just about every time a new electric vehicle charging station is installed in America, I get a press release about it. But what about the other 256 million vehicles on the road in the U.S.? Although they don’t need to plug in, regular cars need somewhere to park, too.

Streetline, a California startup, has an app for that: Parker. The company installs sensors in parking spots so that consumers can go onto their iPhone or Android and check to see where spots are available.

Even if your city doesn’t have sensors, Parker announced on Wednesday an updated app to offer services such as mobile payment options in 84 U.S. locations, timers to let you know when to get back and pump more coins into the meter, a tracker to find your car, and other upgrades.

The idea of finding spots more easily, and collecting data about them, is appealing to drivers, merchants and cities alike. “Parking is a great unsolved problem,” said Zia Yusuf, CEO of Streetline. He pointed to a study from UCLA found that in just one 15-block area of Los Angeles, about 30 percent of traffic involved people looking for parking, a figure that added up to nearly one million excess vehicle miles in a year in that small area. Also, if municipalities can better track when cars are in violation of their parking meter time limits -- well, that’s a moneymaker for cash-strapped cities.

Streetline uses a mesh network that connects the sensors to collectors and then sends it over a backhaul network using AT&T and Verizon. It sounds like cities could just integrate these sensors into their smart grid mesh networks, but it’s not that simple, said Yusuf.

The parking sensor is battery-powered (the AA batteries last four to five years, and the whole sensor can be switched out by road crews in about three minutes, according to Yusuf), while the mesh networks sensors for smart grid applications are often put on the powerline.

But the real problem, said Yusuf, is that the parking sensor mesh network is just the groundwork for other sensors -- for fire hydrants, or to track pollution levels, for example. However, some munis might be looking for the most bang for their buck on building out smart grid mesh networks, so it's possible that the city council would want a single, robust system that could carry a variety of information.

Although regular, combustion engine cars are the current focus, Streetline is also getting into the electric vehicle market. Charging companies like AeroVironment, Coulomb Technologies or eVgo have mobile apps to tell you if charging stations are being used, but they can’t tell you if the spot has a car in it that’s either not plugged in or (gasp!) not an EV. They currently have a program for smart charging at the University of Maryland College Park with Coulomb Technologies.

Although mapping EV and handicap spots was a priority, “Once you start generating the data, there’s a whole range of what you can do,” said Yusuf.

Zipcar is an obvious example, as it’d be great to not waste your time looking for a parking spot when you have to get the car back in 30 minutes. But Yusuf also pointed to applications like Yelp or OpenTable. Once you make a reservation, they could also tell you there’s a spot two blocks away, or that you can go to a nearby garage and get $5 off since you’re dining at the restaurant. Think of it as validated parking for the 21st century.

The company currently has sensors on a few thousand parking spots, but it also has some big names in its corner that suggest grand plans. Streetline is partnered with IBM, which chose the young company as 2010 IBM Global Entrepreneur of the Year. They are also partnered with ACS, Siemens, SAP, POM Parking Meters and others. It also has VC backing from Sutter Hill Ventures. Whether cities are looking to bring dynamic pricing to spaces, track parking in commuter rail stations or up enforcement, “it’s a pretty attractive investment,” said Yusuf.

He said the company was also looking at international expansion, but there’s at least one IBM-backed Spanish company, World Sensing, that is also focusing on parking. But parking is just the beginning. “We’re focused on the data,” he said. “And the apps on top of it.”

Tags: ev infrastructure, mesh network, parking apps, smart cities, smart parking, streetline