At the official public introduction to the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Laboratory and Stanford’s new robotic car on Saturday, the VAIL showed off their latest foray into intelligent vehicle technology: an autonomous valet parking system. The system does exactly what you’re probably hoping it does: you get out if the car, tell it to park itself, and off it goes to do just that:
And of course, when you’re ready to go home, you just call the car back and it’ll be waiting for you. VAIL researchers are envisioning something like an iPhone app to control all this, but it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than a “park” button and a “return” button. The car does the rest, all by itself.
The most awesome part of all this is that the Volkswagen Passat used in this demo, Junior 3, is almost (almost) entirely stock, as far as the hardware goes. There are three different primary sensors in use: a front radar (which is available as part of Volkswagen’s adaptive cruise control system), a camera mounted in front of the rear view mirror (also available for night driving assistance), and a couple little off the shelf LIDAR units mounted on the sides. The LIDAR isn’t currently part of any option package, of course, but Volkswagen does offer other side looking sensors, like lane assist and blind spot detection. The only other major difference is the giant rack of computers in the trunk, but it turns out that the computer system is a standard package for Stanford’s autonomous vehicles, and the computer that comes with the car is actually capable of running everything. Bottom line is, we’re technologically more or less ready for autonomous parking already, with in production vehicles.
So what’s the hold-up? Well, the car currently can’t detect obstacles. Like, you know, people. There’s no reason it couldn’t do that with the current hardware, and that’s in fact the next step, but it’s still a huge liability issue that Volkswagen doesn’t want to tackle. The car also needs a detailed map of the parking lot, so you wouldn’t be able to just drop it off anywhere (yet). So when we first see this technology, VAIL envisions parking garages that are specifically designed for self parking vehicles. There would be a drop off area, and no pedestrians would be allowed in the garage, which wouldn’t need elevators, stairs, walkways, or even lights. This infrastructure isn’t ready yet, but the vehicle technology is here now.
It’s a little bit frustrating to robotics proponents like myself that in cases like these, it seems as if technology is advancing faster than society is prepared for. This is part of what VAIL is here for, though… To figure out not just the technology, but also tackle all of the related issues. There are a bunch of really smart people working on this stuff, and I have to say, if they continue making strides like this, we’re all gonna be worrying a lot less about driving in the near future.