There was a time not so long ago when the idea that a car could park itself without a driver — and refuel itself without human interaction — was squarely in the realm of fantastical science fiction.
In the last few years however, we’ve seen various automakers showcase technology that hints of a not-too distant future where our cars will be able to drive themselves. Others have showcased inductive charging systems for electric cars, promising a day where starting your car charging is as easy as drawing into the parking space.
But now those clever folks at Volkswagen have debuted a prototype system capable of combining both jobs, resulting in a car that can not only drop you off at the entrance to the parking garage on its way to find a parking space — but can charge itself too.
Enter V-Charge, a research project between Volkswagen, Bosch, and various universities and academic institutions across Europe. Tasked with finding ways to make public parking more efficient and convenient for drivers of the future, the system also has the benefit of maximising electric vehicle charging infrastructure too, since cars can automatically vacate a charge spot when their battery packs are full.
Functioning as a test-platform for the technology is a fully-autonomous Volkswagen e-Golf, fitted with four wide angle cameras, two 3D cameras, twelve ultrasound sensors and car-to-infrastructure (or Car2X) technology. Unlike some other autonomous driving systems, the V-Charge project focuses on using autonomous driving in as a valet parking assistant instead of taking over from a human on the open road. Because of this, it uses on-board digital mapping software and image recognition to accurately locate itself inside a parking garage rather than GPS.
Here’s how it works: upon entering a garage fitted with autonomous vehicle to infrastructure technology, the autonomous V-Charge prototype car accesses its high-resolution 3D map of the parking garage it has just entered. It then compares its on-file map with data from its cameras and sensors as well as information from the parking garage’s own Car2X communication system to orient itself in the real world, while the cameras and sensors also help it identify pedestrians, other vehicles and any unexpected obstructions that may block its path.
If charging is needed, the prototype e-Golf’s connection to the parking garage computer system can detect which inductive charging bays are vacant and via a smartphone app, the driver can reserve a space for their car to charge at. Interestingly too, drivers can select how much range they need to get to their next destination, ensuring that the car doesn’t stay in a charging bay longer than required if only a few miles of additional range are needed.
If there’s no charging space free, the car can first park itself in a regular parking space — then move itself into position and start charging as soon as a spot becomes available.
The wireless inductive charging technology — which uses a inductive pad on the floor of the parking space and a similar inductive pad on the underside of the car — is based on the same wireless charging technology showcased by Volkswagen’s luxury arm Audi at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unlike other automotive wireless technologies, Volkswagen’s system relies on the ground-based charging pad lifting up to within a few millimetres of the car’s inductive pad once the vehicle is correctly placed above it, reducing the air gap between the two inductive plates and dramatically improving system efficiency.
When collecting his or her car, the driver simply calls their car using a companion V-Charge smartphone app, meeting their car at the pre-defined pickup location and then continuing their journey as normal.
In addition to helping ensure that no charging spaces are monopolised by a few lazy or selfish drivers in the future, Volkswagen’s V-Charge system could also allow parking garages to maximise on parking space with smaller, tighter parking spaces.
That’s because Volkswagen’s system doesn’t need to leave space for doors to be opened while a car is parked, since it can autonomously move itself to the pre-defined pickup location to meet its occupants when commanded to. Given each parking space currently has to allow a few inches either side of the car to facilitate access, the autonomous prototype could dramatically increase parking space density in the garage of the future.
And because the cars are parking themselves, there’s no worry that someone will inconsiderately park over the line into your space: Volkswagen says the V-Charge prototype can park with centimetre accuracy, thanks to its 360 degree vision and comprehensive sensor system.
Sadly, Volkswagen’s autonomous valet parking feature isn’t heading to a production vehicle quite yet — but we’re looking forward to the day when it does.
What about you? Do you think that self-driving valet mode will catch on? Or do you think that it’s bound to end in disaster? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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