Self-parking Audi creeps toward production reality, haltingly

Aki Sugawara

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If you live in suburbia or Texas, where spaces are wide enough to fit a Toyota Yaris sideways, parking may not be a hassle. But move to San Francisco, and what few parking spots you find often barely squeeze in full-size car. Since nobody wants to end up with an Austin Powers-style parking job, Audi promises self-parking cars, utilizing technology that’s mostly already in production cars today.

The autonomous Audi A7 parking demonstration at this year's Consumer Electronics Show looked bleeding-edge cool— but how would it fare without the help of additional sensors in the parking structure? The company showcased just that at the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory in Silicon Valley, revealing that while it’s fully functional, the computer piloting it struggles with confidence issues.

For the first half of the demonstration, we saw an A7 park in a two-car garage with another vehicle already inside. Exiting the luxury sedan in front of the garage door, the driver dressed for middle management stepped out and whipped out his iPhone, commanding the car to park. The sultry saloon skittishly crept forward into garage, maintaining perfect side distance between the wall and the adjacent car, but got the jitters and reversed back out, eventually giving up.

The Audi rep nervously smiled and said the car is set to be extra careful for purposes of the demonstration, and on the second run it took its spot inside the garage without a hitch. Not the flawless demonstration they probably hoped for, but what was astonishing was it relied on ultrasonic proximity sensors that are currently used in production cars; much of the upgrades lie with the software and computer hardware.

The second half of the event consisted of an actor looking like a Hugo Boss model showcasing how an A4 wagon could back into a parking space, similar to the CES video. The car suffered a bout of OCD and fixed its parking attempt once, but it smoothly did the job. The demo emphasized how the driver is always control of the vehicle (that is, unless the AI inside becomes self-aware); if the Audi was suddenly blocked by another car, the owner could simply let go of the button and pause the maneuver.

First self-driving Lincolns, and now there's an Audi that parks on its own — it’s clear cars are getting smarter, and that such tech is no longer the fanciful sci-fi machinations of films like Minority Report. Disconcertingly, it already does a better parking job than a lot of people who can’t stay within the lines (and usually are the ones who treat their doors like a Roman battering ram). For that reason, the future can't come soon enough.

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