Parking is a frustrating aspect of owning a car—frustrating enough, in fact, that an entire taxi and ride-hail industry has cropped up to get you places on four wheels, while skipping the whole parking thing. It’s also risky. Parking-related crashes happen at lower speeds, so they’re—fortunately—less likely to hurt or kill people (or get reported to police). But they’re costly, and insurance companies are very interested in getting rid of them. Basically: The world would be better without parking.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
That helps explain the efforts by automakers, and others, to reduce parking crashes. German automotive supplier Bosch and automaker Daimler have been working together on parking assist technologies since at least 1995. More advanced parking-assistance tech, which has been built into all sorts of vehicles for a decade, has been proven to reduce the incidence of parking-related crashes.
More recently, Bosch and Daimler have been working for at least four years on a driverless parking garage in Stuttgart, Germany. The companies have teased this collaboration, and now promise that very soon, visitors to the Mercedes-Benz Museum will be able to ride in a car that can navigate its own way through a parking garage, and then be sent off to park by itself.
This “Automated Valet Parking” experience has technically been running since 2017, but always with a safety driver onboard to monitor the tech. The companies have also demo-ed the system in China. But now, Bosch and Daimler say they’ve received regulatory approval from officials in Stuttgart and the German state of Baden-Württemberg to operate a driverless parking service “soon”—though they won’t say precisely when they’ll start.
To pull off the automated system, Bosch did what some driverless tech mavens have long considered verboten: It built sensors into the parking garage to make it easier for the car to navigate. (Some believe that a truly driverless vehicle is only one that operates completely on its own, without help from sensors outside the car.) Bosch’s sensors include lidar and cameras, which scan the garage 25 times a second to make sure no objects—other cars, children, bicyclists—are in the vehicle’s way. The system also determines whether a vehicle will fit in a particular space.
Future-minded infrastructure junkies have long touted the benefits of self-driving vehicles. Once they can drive themselves, cars won’t need cumbersome side mirrors, which means they might be able to be packed more tightly in a garage or lot. That could, in turn, unlock that former car storage for more productive, human-centered uses: a park? an apartment? a car wash? Teaching cars to go from garage entrance to parking spot and back again all by themselves appears to be step one in realizing this fantastic vision.
Despite the new approval, however, it still seems a bit fantastic. Right now, you’ll only be able to participate in the robot valet experience in a specially equipped Mercedes-Benz. Bosch says that any old car could work with its automated system—if that car comes with a communication unit, automatic transmission, electronic stability control, electric power steering, remote engine start, and a “safe stop” function. Bosch points out, however, that that equipment is much easier to come by right now than a fully self-driving car, which doesn’t quite exist yet.
Mercedes-Benz and Bosch have also used their valet experiments to come up with some useful information about how people might one day want to interact with self-driving cars. The Mercedes-Benz vehicles will, for example, glow turquoise when they’re in self-parking mode, because research has taught the companies that pedestrians and other drivers like to know when cars are driving themselves. In fact, those learnings helped the Society of Automotive Engineers, an industry group that writes safety and design standards for vehicles, develop a new standard for lighting in automated driving systems. The robot valet is still technically limited, but it’s teaching humans some new stuff.