Part of the autonomous driving dream is the ability to jump out of your vehicle in front of the store, mall, concert hall, or museum and let the car find its own parking while you enjoy life. No more creeping along in garages thinking you found the perfect spot, only to have your delight dashed by the motorcycle you couldn't quite see.
While true autonomous driving is still years away, regardless of the declarations of automakers and startups, there's another way to have your car seemingly park itself: remote teleoperation. BMW and Valeo are teaming up to make this a reality at BMW's new Future Mobility Development Center in Sokolov, Czech Republic. The automaker gave us a sneak peek and let us remotely drive a vehicle in a simulated parking lot.
Sim racing rig, but less exciting and more anxiety-inducing
As I stood in a small building, about 100 m away sat a BMW iX waiting to be piloted via the rig sitting before me. It resembled the typical online racing rig you see in the homes of car enthusiasts and gamers, except that the side monitors didn't expand the view horizontally. Instead, they were used to display an overhead version of the world around the vehicle. Below those monitors were tablets with controls (forward, reverse, etc) and vehicle status.
Outside, BMW had set up a low-speed autocross course with a parking spot at the end. The sensors (cameras, radar, ultrasonic) I would be relying on to deftly pilot the BMW were the same you would find in a production iX. The vehicle itself was equipped with the Valeo parking platform software.
I got the run-down that a potential remote parking agent would get. You depress the brake pedal to enable the system and then ignore it for the rest of the process. The accelerator is the only active pedal during the "drive," and when you lift, the vehicle comes to a stop. It does this rather quickly because the top speed in our simulation was an eye-watering 10 kilometers an hour. That's just a bit over six miles an hour.
The system works with a 4G connection, but as BMW notes, 5G is better.
While behind the wheel, instead of the usual speedometer, there's a "requested speed" and "current speed" indicator. You can have the accelerator depressed to go, say, 8 km/h. That's the requested speed shown in green. As you approach that harrowing amount of movement through space, an actual speed indicator in white moves up toward that green requested speed bar. The idea is to have a visual representation of acceleration.
The slow speed and two views (overhead and front or rear, depending on the gear selected) don't make the first time you use remote piloting any less difficult. While you're driving what feels like a video game car, you know that 100 m away, a real vehicle is narrowly missing cones. In a parking garage, those cones would be walls, cars, people, stranded shopping carts, and whatever else is left lying about. You become aware quickly that treating this as a game could result in harm to people—or, at the very least, some scratches that will lead to your dismissal from the job.
Watching others use the system, I noticed that everything seemed to be moving quickly onscreen, but out the window, the iX was crawling along at a snail's pace.
When it was my turn behind the wheel, I tried to move quicker than those before me. Onscreen, it looked like I was moving too quickly, but I knew that in reality, the vehicle was moving slowly enough that lifting a foot would bring it almost immediately to a stop.
I was proud of my time, although no one was keeping track of how quickly we could remote park an iX. Toward the end of my time driving, I began to trust in the system and its view of the world. If this were my job, I'd sit in an air-conditioned room parking cars instead of hustling to grab the keys from the driver, parking the car, and then running all the way back to the valet drop-off point. I'd be less sweaty but have fewer tips.
BMW owners would use an app to start this whole process, but will they be inclined to tip someone they never see? At least no one has to wear a red vest.
Intelligent infrastructure approach and self driving
There are, of course, two other ways this scenario could work without a remote operator. First, there's the self-driving vehicle solution, which is not ready and won't be for a while.
Then there's the intelligent infrastructure approach. Sensors are embedded into the parking facility itself, and the vehicles use those to navigate. Mercedes-Benz and Bosch will be the first to use this system, with BMW following. The current plan is to start with 20 parking lots in Europe and expand from there.
To make sure all automakers can take part, standards have been implemented, and any OEM with the right hardware, software, and adherence to a standard will be able to offer self-parking at select parking lots.
As we move slowly toward an autonomous car future, there will likely be groups of drivers hanging out in a room playing the slowest sim driving game ever—and one with real-world consequences.
Listing image by BMW