Autonomous Parking? There Could Be an App for That Soon
Now that self-parking systems are common, the next step is parking without the owner present.
Depending on your driving skills, parking can come as second nature -- or cause a mild panic attack every time you begin pulling into a tight spot. Many automakers today offer automatic parking systems that can ease a car into a spot at the touch of a button, and the technology is no longer found only on luxury cars.
Ford makes its Active Parking Assist system available even on entry-level vehicles, while Toyota’s Intelligent Park Assist system on the Prius handles angled as well as parallel parking. But as if just pushing a button and removing your hands from the wheel wasn’t easy enough, several automakers have shown prototype systems that will park the car for you -- even after you’ve exited the vehicle.
Now Nissan is working on a system that allows a self-driving car to find a parking spot after the owner walks away.
BMW demonstrated driverless self-parking technology six years ago with a system that uses a reflective lens placed at the front of a regular parking spot such as in a garage at home. A video camera on the car measures the distance and angle between the car and the lens. Then the car calculates the trajectory and activates the gas pedal and steering wheel to ease into a parking spot at the push of a button on the car’s remote-entry transmitter.
At the time, BMW said that the technology used existing components and that a fully automated, self-parking car could be available within three years. But BMW drivers with overstuffed garages are still waiting for it to appear.
In 2002, Volkswagen demonstrated its Park Assist Vision system, which allow backing a car into a tight perpendicular space by remote control. The system uses cameras in the left and right exterior mirrors to gauge the dimensions of a parking space and transmit the information to the steering and drive systems. Cameras at the front and rear of the vehicle and ultrasound sensors monitor the self-parking operation and stop the vehicle if necessary.
Last week, Nissan showed a self-parking car at an electronics show in Japan that goes a step further by allowing the car to find a spot on its own via a driver’s smartphone. After arriving at a destination such as a shopping mall, the driver would be able to tap a button on a smartphone app and the car would go off to find a spot.
"When a smartphone sends an instruction to park, the instruction enters the cloud to the Nissan Global Data Center," Tooru Futami, engineering director at Nissan's Electronics Engineering Development Division, told ComputerWorld. The data center performs a “health check” on the car and decides if the car is OK to enter automatic driving mode.
Using the cloud connection, the car would locate an accurate map of its surrounding. Then the car would compare that map info to images captured by four onboard high-definition cameras. This method is more accurate than using GPS, according to Nissan. Once the car recognizes its location, it would look for a parking space and park itself -- without any involvement from the driver.
In a demonstration, a Nissan Leaf with the technology cruised at about 3 mph in automatic driving mode. The experimental system requires two PCs in the trunk, but Nissan says it’s working to streamline the operation. The technology won't be ready for production cars any time soon, although "2015" stenciled on the side of the Leaf may indicate that it could be available within a few years.
While many worry that such technology and others like it makes drivers lazy, now that we’re seeing the advent of driverless cars, maybe learning to park (and/or parking attendants) will become obsolete once a car drops you off and parks itself nearby.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
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