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  • By John R. Quain

Is Parking the First Task to Go Autonomous?

Last week's announcement that Bosch and Mercedes-Benz would begin the first government approved deployment of a fully-autonomous driving function--valet parking--was no doubt a milestone. But more important, hidden within the news were 4 interesting lessons for automakers and those working on self-driving cars.

The initial debut of the "automated valet parking" will take place at the Mercedes-Benz Museum parking garage in Stuttgart. It's a full no-human-driver-needed system.

You get out of the car in the garage, and push a button on your smartphone. Off the car goes, up and down aisles and ramps all by its lonesome. You don't have to keep your thumb on a deadman's switch or hang around watching the car park itself. Just walk away and let it do its thing, even drive off to park on another level. When you're done gawking around the museum, go back to the garage, push a button in the app, and your Mercedes-Benz will come pick you up.

It is, for the technically minded, an SAE Level 4 system, and it has received operational approval from the Stuttgart regional administrative authority. Daimler and Bosch hope that will open the floodgates to more regulatory approval elsewhere.

So what were the lessons autonomous vehicle developers and municipalities could take away from the news?

1.) The first application of fully autonomous vehicles may address the more mundane tasks of driving, such as parking. (What petrol-head could complain about taking that task away?) Could HOV lanes be next?

2.) Lidar (light detection and ranging) is still critical; it's a part of Bosch's garage sensor array. Bosch said it may eventually only use cameras....but that seems overly optimistic unless you ban pedestrians and toddlers from wandering around the garage (and you can't do that as long as other non-autonomous cars are being used to visit the museum).

3.) Self-driving cars may not be able to go it alone and may require some infrastructure communications to make autonomous vehicles viable. The most striking thing about the automated valet parking feature is how much it relies not on the sensors and systems in the cars, but on the extensive gauntlet of sensors needed within the garage.

4.) That whole 5G vs. DSRC tussle for the wireless vehicle-to-infrastructure market, well, it ain't over. All a company spokesperson could offer is that the vehicles will initially rely on Wi-Fi connections. And there was no commitment to the cellular V2X protocol associated with 5G (and its associated costs) or to the more mature and open DSRC protocol.

How much is all this going to cost to retrofit in a garage? So much that they wouldn't tell me how much.

More than 4 years ago, BMW showed me how to park a car with a smart watch. It was all for demonstration purposes but it eventually it gave way to actual automated parking features. Hyundai has since also added a self-parking option but you have to stick around to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Touted as a "world's first" the Bosch and Daimler system lets you walk away. You don't even have to tip.

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