LAS VEGAS — I am standing outside the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel in Vegas, and up pulls a high-end Audi A7, a car that bristles with technology. Nothing very remarkable about that, but the car doesn’t have a driver. No, though it looks totally stock, this car can both park itself and then, with a click of a smartphone app, be summoned from the lot and pull up in front of the hotel entrance. We watched it do all of this stuff.

parking sensorDemonstrations like this can make it seem that self-driving cars are right around the corner, but in fact it’s made possible by sophisticated (though commercially available) sensors both in the car and along the route that help it pinpoint an exact location, detect obstacles and other vehicles. Because of that, this A7 can’t just take off across town to pick up the milk, though Audi has a license to do that in the state of Nevada and has other vehicles — bristling with expensive cameras, sensors and lasers — that can run up Pikes Peak and handle public highways. 

Annie Lien, a senior engineer with the company’s research lab, calls what the A7 does “piloted parking.” She doesn’t expect tech like that to be commercialized until about 2023, but she does see applications like that coming — part of the incremental push toward autonomous driving. Lien is actually worried that valet parkers could lose their jobs.

Here’s what the self-parking car looks like on video:

Working with suppliers like Bosch, Audi is looking at nearer-term applications such as traffic jam assist, which could let your car inch forward on your own in gridlock conditions while you relax with the daily paper. Closer still is technology that will allow the car to change lanes on its own, after you indicate intent with the turn signal.

Scott Winchip, a chassis control executive at Bosch, points to a current system that can mitigate collisions (by pre-tensioning seatbelts and pre-charging brakes, then intervening directly to apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond). Video cameras can help with another existing system, lane departure warning, which sends signals when you start to wander, and then, if needed, steers you back in line.

parked carsI also like the sound of systems that detect drowsiness (by, among other things, noticing that you’re not moving the steering wheel). A coffee cup icon warns you to stay awake, Winchip said. I tried out all these systems in a Bosch driving simulator that was amazingly successful at imitating forward movement. Its animated scenarios said Florida but looked like Europe.

Audi, meanwhile, is looking for new challenges. “We’ve already done Pikes Peak,” Lien said. “We wanted to show off something that was closer to production.” The technology in the self-parking A7 isn’t prohibitively expensive, but the hurdles to this and other sooner-than-later self-parking applications are more legal and regulatory. Plus, people have to get used to the idea of cars that park themselves.

The company with the most road miles in autonomous vehicles isn’t an automaker — instead it’s Google, whose motivations in the space are somewhat mysterious but always interesting. Dr. Christina Simon, Audi’s self-parking project chief, said, “Google is doing good work, and they have millions of miles of on-road experience. But we bring an automaker’s know-how to the table.” And that means automakers (GM and Volkswagen are also players) are getting serious about cars without drivers.

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