By Zak Stone
It's an experience everyone has had: You see a car parked in a tow zone or left with its lights on and wish you could do something more than tuck a note in the windshield to alert the owner, who may not return for hours.
Until cars become "smart" enough that they can communicate with their owners directly, there's an interesting hack that takes advantage of something every car has: a license plate. CurbTXT is the five-month-old service in San Francisco that would let anyone contact the owner of a parked car directly, by sending a text to CurbTXT with the license plate of the car and a message, which CurbTXT passes along anonymously. Car owners have to register their car to receive texts--and denote their participation with a CurbTXT sticker on the rear of their car--but anyone can participate in the sending part of the service.
"Without the city onboard, it's just a neighbor-to-neighbor service that needs critical mass to be effective," says CurbTXT's Alex Maxa. The startup's trying to change that by working with the San Francisco MTA "to get CurbTXT integrated into the city's parking management system." Maxa envisions the service being used by parking enforcement officers, who could text car owners that they're going to get towed, especially before special events that involve temporary tow zones. It's a service the city's Board of Supervisors has even asked for. "Our belief is that the driver will get out and move the car faster than a tow truck would," says Maxa. The city benefits because it can still issue a ticket for parking in a tow zone (try getting city support for something that attempts to take that revenue away), and drivers benefit because at least they don't get towed.
That's a pretty specific use case, of course. I could see it being worthwhile to register my car in case I'm blocking someone's driveway or doing any of the myriad other obnoxious things I regularly do with my car while parking in Los Angeles. On a more fun note, I could also see CurbTXT being a great way to flirt with drivers on the road, possibly being the connective tissue for many a Craiglist missed connections: "Saw you in your blue Honda Civic, I was in my red Prius. Text me!"
Of course, thinking about the service that way points out its number one barrier to entry: a fear of unwanted texts which surely discourages some people from signing up. Maxa said that growth has been steady since they launched in September, but he declined to share the number of registered users--a sign that there probably aren't that many. Clever ideas take time to catch on, and CurbTXT makes it easy to block spammers: just text #block in response to an annoying text.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.