EU develops app-controlled parking system for self-driving cars

31 Jul 2014

Researchers from Germany, Italy, the UK and Switzerland have created a system that lets passengers exit self-driving electric cars (e-cars) at airports and railway stations and leave the car to go and park by itself.

While self-driving e-cars may be some way away from being a popular consumer phenomenon, the research team from the V-CHARGE consortium has developed a fully automated parking and charging system for e-cars at public car parks.

Supported by €5.6m of EU funding, the system will be available in the coming years.

“The idea is that we can actually use technology to give people a better mix of public and private transport,” explained Dr Paul Furgale, scientific project manager for V-CHARGE and deputy director of the autonomous systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Drop and go

Drivers will be able to leave their e-car in front of the car park and use a smartphone app to trigger the parking process. The vehicle will connect with the e-car park’s server and drive itself to the designated space.

While in the garage, the e-car can also be programmed to go to a charging station. Upon returning, the driver uses the same app to summon the e-car – fully charged and ready to go.

Since GPS satellite signals don’t always work inside garages, the scientists have developed a camera-based system based on their expertise in robotics and environment sensing. Safety is at the centre of the project: the e-car is designed to avoid obstacles.

Furgale believes the same technology could be used to develop autonomous parking systems for e-cars on city streets.

“That will be more of a challenge,” he says. “But once you have the maps in place, the rest of the technology will come together.”

In April, the team presented the latest version of the system at Stuttgart airport. This was a success and the researchers are now fine-tuning the technology to tackle more precise manoeuvres and ensure reliability, even in difficult weather conditions.

The project is set to conclude in 2015, with its results available to be progressively commercialised in the coming years. The functions developed should be cost-effective enough to be integrated into the production of electric vehicles. Engineers are working with equipment that is already available today, such as ultrasonic sensors and stereo cameras that are used in parking assistance and emergency braking systems.

European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes has welcomed the development.

“We need to think ahead and find smarter ways to move, to save time, money and our environment,” Kroes said. “Who wouldn’t want to save time parking their car?

“We need research on new technologies – and how to combine them – to get practical solutions. The V-CHARGE system goes in the right direction and I look forward to using it.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years