LAS VEGAS -- The self-driving car is what almost every automaker is talking about at CES 2015. Audi sent its autonomous car on a 550-mile road trip to the show in Las Vegas, but VW is thinking about the much shorter trip to the end of your driveway with its Trained Parking. I settled into the passenger seat of a Volkswagen e-Golf development car for a demonstration.
Trained Parking builds on the automaker's current semi-automatic parking system, which uses sonar to measure parallel and perpendicular parking spaces before taking control of the steering to guide the vehicle into the spot. With this system, the driver retains control of the gas and brake pedals and makes the shifts from drive to reverse according to onscreen prompts. The current system can even help get the vehicle out of a tight parallel spot, shimmying the car back and forth and onto the road.
The new Trained Parking system is an evolution of this technology. The next-generation system adds a forward-facing camera to the sensor package and can autonomously guide the vehicle into a preselected parking spot without a driver behind the wheel. The system can also autonomously retrieve the vehicle when the driver calls upon it with a smartphone. It's like a robotic valet for your home.
Where the semi-automatic parking is designed for unfamiliar public spaces, Trained Parking is called "Trained" because the user must first teach the car the path between the passenger drop-off point and its regular parking space, so it's only useful at home. Volkswagen tells us that training this is as simple as driving the route once - for example, from your front door to your garage space - and allowing the sonar and camera sensors to scan the environment along the way.
During my demonstration in the e-Golf, the car was sent to a parking space nearby while I sat in the passenger seat and watched the electric car handle steering, accelerating, and braking itself, stopping over an inductive charging pad. With a smartphone, an engineer nearby then called the car back to its starting point. The car steered smoothly, but was a bit jerky with the brakes; I'm willing to forgive that, since it's designed to operate without people inside.
The demo route was a fairly straight path, but I'm told that the system can learn complex and extended routes, so it should be able to navigate L or U-shaped driveways or even send the car to a detached garage behind your house. With a learning range as long as a kilometer, you can send the car pretty far. However, current autonomous driving laws restrict this technology to use on private property.
Obstruction and pedestrian avoidance have been built into the software, so the car can stop if someone walks in front of it. (Volkswagen's engineers seemed very comfortable around the autonomous demo vehicle, casually walking back and forth across car's path during my demonstration.) Volkswagen's representatives also tell me that the system keeps learning more about its route with every trip, adapting to small changes in its path.
The most obvious benefit of a self-parking car is convenience. You could have the car drop you off or pick you up at your door on a rainy day. Drivers who park in very small garages or narrow spaces won't have to ding up their doors shimmying out of tight spots. There are also potential benefits for handicapped drivers or parents who wrangle small children.
It may be years before self-driving cars will be able to drive you to work, but the self-parking car looks to be just around the corner. However, VW hasn't stated when we'll see this evolved parking tech in it production cars.