January 12, 2013, 7:05 AM — Wouldn't it be nice if your car could valet itself? That's right--imagine driving up to a hotel or restaurant, getting out of your car, and pressing a button. Your car would roll up its windows and drive off to find an available parking spot and park itself. Then, when you needed your car again, you could just press another button and it would leave its parking space and drive to where you are.
Automakers are already working on this type of less-intense automated driving. Audi's proof-of-concept car isn't quite Google's self-driving vehicle--there's no LIDAR laser on the roof, and it can't drive hundreds of thousands of miles without human interaction (yet). But this car can drive itself into a parking lot, park itself, and drive back out to meet you with the press of a smartphone button.
How it works
The Audi proof-of-concept connected car uses multiple built-in sensors to determine whether a spot is open (and large enough for the car to park in) and whether--and how far away--obstacles are from the car. It also uses some "infrastructure-based" sensors to help guide it to the parking garage (sensors built into the road, the walls of the garage, and so on).
In the demonstration we saw, the car worked in tandem with a smartphone app. A rushed "businessman" jumped out of the car, held up his smartphone, and tapped a button in the app. The car, which had been turned off and put into park, restarted itself, rolled up its windows, and drove (slowly) off to the parking garage.
Once inside the parking garage, the car found an empty parking spot (between two cars) and backed itself into the spot. In this particular demonstration, the car used both sensors built into the car and infrastructure-based laser sensors, which were placed along the curb to help guide the car into the parking lot.
Audi's piloted parking car: not coming soon
Audi's piloted parking car is an impressive display of technology--especially since it actually uses sensors that are currently built into Audi vehicles: Audi didn't introduce any new technology for its parking demonstration. However, because of the complications surrounding the self-driving car phenomenon, this particular technology, though not brand new, still isn't quite ready to come to market.
Audi expects the piloted parking car will be a reality within the next decade, but they can't be any more specific than that. Also, the company prefers the use of "piloted" rather than "self-driving" or "self-parking," to describe this technology since part of its philosophy is that the driver is still ultimately responsible for the car's actions.
Although Audi's proof-of-concept uses sensor technology already in use on the company's vehicles, the car did need the guidance of laser sensors built into the parking structure itself, and we couldn't walk near it while it was parking (or even walk within several feet of it) for it to work.
Future piloted cars will still need the laser sensors, which means that both vehicles and infrastructure will need to . So even when these cars do come to market, garages and parking lots will have to support the feature for it to work. (I imagine you'll pull up to a restaurant and see a sign that says "Audi piloted parking works here," or something to that extent.)
Not just another self-driving car
Audi's proof-of-concept has a couple of things that make it stand out from other autonomous vehicles, such as Google's self-driving Prius and even Toyota's automated Lexus research car. First, it only uses technology that already exists and that has been implemented in cars that are on the road today.
Second, it doesn't need unsightly exposed lasers and sensors--the proof-of-concept car we saw looked like any regular Audi. Audi may not be ready to bring its piloted parking concept to market just yet, but, when it does, it will probably do so in style.