If a car is going to self-drive, it might as well self-park, too

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Updated: January 24, 2015 1:36:10 AM

BMW has created a system that actually obeys when a driver says to the car, “Go park yourself.” Others are also working on the technology

BMW, BMW i3BMW i3 was equipped with laser scanners. No GPS was used. (AP)

TECHNOLOGY may soon render another skill superfluous: parking a car. Sensors and software promise to free owners from parking angst, turning vehicles into robotic chauffeurs, dropping off drivers and then parking themselves, no human intervention required.

BMW demonstrated such technical prowess with a specially equipped BMW i3 at the International CES. At a multilevel garage of the SLS Las Vegas hotel, a BMW engineer spoke into a Samsung Gear S smartwatch.

“BMW, go park yourself,” and off the electric vehicle scurried to an empty parking spot, turning and backing itself perfectly into the open space.

To retrieve the car, a tap on the watch and another command, “BMW, pick me up,” returned the car to the engineer. The i3 was equipped with laser scanners. No GPS was used. Instead, the car relied on a map of the parking garage and an onboard cellular data connection. No smartphone was needed. The Samsung watch includes its own cellular connection, so commands are sent to a BMW server, which relays the instructions to the car, said Yves Pilat, one of BMW’s engineers developing it. BMW calls it fully automated remote valet parking.

Several other companies have demonstrated similar self-parking cars, including Toyota, Valeo and Volkswagen. In many ways, the development is an extension of existing parallel parking assist technologies. In such systems, the driver remains behind the wheel, but with a push of a button, the vehicle measures the parking space and then swings backs into it without any input from the human operator.

“Now, the concept is you can do any kind of parking spot,” Mr Pilat said, and without a driver.

Aside from preventing Ferris Bueller-like joy rides by garage attendants, the advantage of introducing autonomous car features to handle parking has several benefits, foremost being to win over sceptical consumers.

Parallel parking was “the first step in getting drivers to understand that there are some tasks the car might be able to do better than you,” said John Hanson, Toyota Motor Sales USA’s national manager for advanced technology and business communication. Letting the company’s electronic park assist do the tricky manoeuvring can eliminate dings, wrinkled fenders and embarrassing scrapes. But cars that park themselves without a driver are still research projects, which may face more regulatory than technological hurdles.

Valeo says consumers will see its self-parking technology introduced in a production vehicle within the next 12 months. To overcome possible regulatory objections, Valeo includes one additional piece of technology: a 360-degree, bird’s-eye view video camera. The live video view is displayed on the owner’s smartphone, and the user must keep a finger on the screen until the car is finished parking. If the finger is lifted, the car will stop automatically. “So the driver remains in control of the operation to conform to current regulations,” said Guillaume Devauchelle, Valeo’s vice-president for innovation and scientific development.

BMW is also working with Parkmobile and is considering integrating parking location and payment features with its robotic valet in the future. It would mean drivers would never have to worry about finding a spot or learning how to parallel park.

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