Self-Parking Car from Stanford and Volkswagen

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No humans here. This Passat is parking itself.
No humans here. This Passat is parking itself.

Sure you could drive your own car and park it yourself, but why go to all that trouble when computer and robots can do it for you? The Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Laboratory (VAIL) and Stanford’s robotic car team recently debuted a Passat that can park itself. The autonomous valet parking project used only moderate modifications to allow the VW sedan to find the first available space in a lot and park itself without any human guidance. Check out the video of the October 24th demonstration from BotJunkie after the break.

Stanford’s no newcomer to robotic vehicles. They’ve placed and won the DARPA Urban Challenge with Stanley and Junior. They’ve also modified a Audi TTS named Shelley that will soon be sent out to climb Pike’s Peak on its own. The autonomous valet parking is just one aspect of a greater effort to create fully autonomous vehicles. As object recognition software improves, and decision making capabilities are refined, cars will become capable of increasingly complex driving routines. The prize money offered in the Urban Challenge ($2 million USD) is undoubtedly fueling some of the interest, but you have to think that at some level researchers are just excited about creating robotic cars.

Impressively, the Passat from the autonomous valet parking project contains mostly stock parts. The vehicle uses a camera placed in front of the rear view mirror and a front radar system which can be purchased as package options from Volkswagen. Small lasers sensors were added along the periphery but a similar LIDAR system is also available from VW. Of course, robotic controls and a huge computer system don’t come standard in a Passat, but the fact remains that the self-parking car isn’t that far from a vehicle you could purchase right now at any Volkswagen dealership.

Yet, if the vehicle is almost road ready, the programming is still stuck in the underground garage. The VAIL/Stanford car can park itself, but only if provided with a map of the lot before hand. Also, if you have children, pets, or elderly loved ones who like hanging out on asphalt, now’s the time to get them to safety. The robotic car is unable to avoid obstacles and will not stop if encounters one. Admittedly, the engineering team has slated obstacle recognition as the next step in the project, but I have a great deal more respect for those courageous enough to hang out in the parking lot during the demonstration.

So the machine’s a deadly robot on wheels for now, but that’s going to change. With prizes like the DARPA Urban Challenge and the support of a major automotive manufacturing like Volkswagen, it’s only a matter of time before Stanford makes marked improvements in the autonomy of its robotic cars. And let’s not forget that there are dozens of other teams pursuing the same goal. It’s taken many decades to reach the level of independence demonstrated by the autonomous valet parking system, but it may not take decades more to produce a vehicle that can drive as well as a human. We’ve already got planes that can land themselves, hopefully we’ll soon have cars that can auto-park without hitting your kids.

[screen capture and video credit: BotJunkie]