A funny thing happened during my visit to the Volkswagen Electronic Research Laboratory. About halfway through the tour, a bus chauffeured us (a group of reporters and business executives) through the entrance of a well-to-do gated community in Belmont, California. We stopped in front of one of the homes, where a man stood waiting, smartphone in hand. He was there to demonstrate Audi’s autonomous vehicle parking technology in the garage of an ERL executive’s house. I had to wonder what the neighbors thought, whether they ever noticed the car driving itself into the garage.
The ERL is where the Volkswagen Group works on all of its truly innovative technologies, like advanced driver assistance, navigation, and of course, piloted driving (Audi prefers the term "piloted" to "autonomous" because it implies that the human in the car still has ultimate responsibility). Last week, Audi announced that it became the first automaker—and second company, after Google—to get an autonomous vehicle license in Nevada. That means the company can now test its autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. At ERL, I glimpsed the first hints of our autonomous vehicle future: self-parking.
The garage self-parking demo began with a few hiccups; the Audi refused to enter the garage for the first couple tries, presumably because it didn’t think it had enough space. But eventually it worked, as you can see in the video above. Our demonstrator activated the vehicle’s engine with a smartphone. When the car was snugly in its space, it automatically shut off the engine and locked the doors.
There is no super-fancy technology involved; all the ultrasound sensors guiding the car are already found in Audi vehicles. In a parking garage, the situation is a little different—the garage’s central computer helps guide the vehicle to an open space. Eventually, Audi cars will also use camera systems to assist with guidance.
Back at ERL, I saw demos of piloted parking in an outside lot, where a vehicle easily maneuvered in and out of a tight parking space. When a car drove in front of the vehicle while it was exiting the space (on purpose, of course), an ERL employee simply pressed "pause" in a smartphone app to prevent a collision. In the event of a real emergency, the car can stop itself.
This was not my first time seeing the Volkswagen Group’s autonomous technology. In 2010, I sat inside Junior 3, a robotic Volkswagen Passat, while it parked itself at Stanford’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab. At the time, it was surreal; I felt like a ghost was driving me around. During the ERL visit, the technology seemed much more in reach. And in fact, Audi representatives told me that piloted parking will be commercialized in the next few years. Autonomous vehicles could be available by the end of the decade.
The Volkswagen Group and its brands have a long history of working on autonomous vehicles, but other automakers are catching up. Like Audi, Ford is working on traffic jam assist technology that can take over for drivers in heavy traffic. Volvo’s self-driving road trains, expected to be on European roads by 2020, wirelessly link cars on the highway to a lead vehicle, driven by a person, that controls movement.
While it isn’t a car company, Google is working on autonomous vehicles as well. According to Brad Stertz, corporate communications manager at Audi of America, one of the main differences between Audi and Google technology is that Google is developing a kind of autonomous driving "black box" that can go into other cars, while Audi’s system is deeply integrated into each vehicle.
In the coming years, automakers will take baby steps towards producing fully autonomous vehicles, starting with piloted parking technology. By the time self-driving cars hit the road, they won’t seem so sci-fi.