Autonomous self-parking and charging garages to be a reality by 2019

Human-free parking lots where the cars park themselves and robots keep them charged are not as far away as they might seem. We visit a research group in Germany that's making it a reality

In just a few months there will be a new first for automated cars, as one will drive itself up six floors of a parking lot before parking and being automatically charged by a robot.

This could be the start of automated parking lots and garages, said Thomas Schamm, Division Manager at research group FZI, who works with a series of manufacturers on automated vehicles.

inside“It is much safer to move to a self-parking garage,” Schamm, who works on the AUTOPLES project said, as “the only thing that can happen is damage to other cars.”

He continued to say that these systems could begin to be in place as soon as three to four years from now, and may start out with “just one deck” of a parking lot being autonomous.

So far, the researchers have been able to create systems that allow a car to drive round a parking lot and identify parking bays that are either empty or occupied. Once the car has sensed whether a space is available it, like many others that are being produced, is able to safely park itself in the space. Similar developments have come from companies such as BMW, which has also created in-lot automated parking. 

“The best option would be that the car doesn’t need any structure or communication, but just moves through the entry of the parking garage and then finds its way by itself and not following any other information,” Schamm said.

“We are also looking into it that the car can itself set up a map and then drive through the garage in the same time, like a human driver just going into the garage and driving through without any other knowledge and finding a parking space.” 

The test later this year will see the self-parking technology be coupled with an automated robotic charging point – at a parking lot in Stuttgart, Germany.

If successful, it could herald a start to a mass change in automated parking where we can leave our cars outside parking lots while the cars park and charge themselves.

The car, an Audi Q5, will climb six levels of a parking bay before it parks itself and an automated system begins to charge it.

The automated charger uses cameras to sense where a vehicle’s charging point is before it adjusts itself to the height the charging point is at. It can then plug itself into the vehicle and ensure the vehicle is powered to be driven away upon its owner’s return.

There is even future potential to use wireless charging, explained Schaam.

He explained that this would allow a car park to automatically charge cars while the drivers are away from their vehicles.

Once a vehicle is fully charged, the charging point can then move to the next vehicle and begin to charge that.

Standardising autonomous systems

However Schamm warned that for this to work on a mass level, where hundreds of cars can park themselves in large garages, there needs to be some standardisation of the technology, and for this protocols are needed.

“That can only work if the companies themselves are able to work together and accept specific protocols for example,” he said.

“What we can give is ideas of how to set up such a protocol to say that information is necessary for this and that function. But we cannot push the companies to say you have to follow that guideline.”

Excellence centres are often created that allow the standardisation of products and a co-ordinated approach to be made. These methods may often involve government intervention as well.

Schamm believes that this sort of approach can be taken with comfort features, such as automation systems that help a vehicle’s driver, as well as for those safety functions like the communication systems that are already in place.

There are also concerns around the variability of cars and different sized parking lots. Schamm’s ideal is that the cars will one day be able to drive themselves intuitively around parking lots in a similar way to humans, but first, he said, they will need to communicate with their environments.

This could include the possibility that “the car will give information about its size” to a parking lot on its entry. This is where the importance of the car having a standard communication protocol becomes vital.

Working without GPS

Almost everyone who has used a GPS navigation system, whether it is in a vehicle or one built into a mobile phone, has suffered from connection problems. When a car is relying upon these systems for automated driving, there is a serious concern that a loss in location information could cause a car to become disorientated or crash.

Schamm said that the FZI researchers have incorporated “time of flight” cameras onto the cars that they have been working on. These cameras allows sensors to determine the depth of objects that they are coming up to.

The sensors could be key to the success of automated cars that lose their GPS connection. To create a car that is able to park itself in a parking lot, the researchers had to ditch GPS and rely on these sensors (as can be seen in the video above).

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“It’s not just relying on GPS information,” Schaam said. “For the first thing you need to have is good information about the environment”.

This can include onboard information that is stored by the car. The information can then be fused with the data collected by the onboard cameras.

Schamm said that a method of fusing what the car sees and what it already knows can allow a picture of the environment to be created, and if researchers can “develop [an] algorithm to recognise landmarks” then automated cars will be able to cope when they lose their bearings.

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