All over the world, searching for a parking spot can be a nightmare. Take New York City, for example. According to INRIX Research’s 2017 “Impact of Parking Pain” study, motorists in the Big Apple on average spend 107 hours a year hunting for a parking space—that’s more than four days of your life you’ll never get back.
For New York City alone, the total annual cost associated with that search is $4.3 billion—or $2,243 per driver—in wasted time, fuel and emissions. And Alec Baldwin isn’t the only one who finds the parking space search maddening: Over the last 12 months, according to the study, 23% of drivers reported getting into an altercation with another motorist over a parking space.
Drivers elsewhere have it better, but the national average is still 17 hours a year spent looking for a spot, costing $345 per driver.
The good news is that many of these “parking pains,” as INRIX calls them, could be minimized by using self-driving technology to automate the parking process. Even more exciting, transportation visionary Elon Musk recently tweeted that Tesla is already nearing a solution.
Tesla began talking up the feature in 2016 and showed it off in video demonstrations, but is sending your car off to find a spot and park itself—while you’re already inside, say, the mall, restaurant or movie theater—really so close to being available for consumers? Although Musk’s timeline seems a bit optimistic, Doug Newcomb, senior industry analyst for mobility at Wards Intelligence and a Forbes contributor, says that if anyone can make it happen, it’s Tesla. “They aren’t afraid to push the envelope to get things done,” he said.
Newcomb raised an important issue, however. “Coming up with an over-the-air update—a software patch—that would enable Tesla’s latest version of Autopilot to self-park one of the company’s EVs is not the problem,” he said. “As I understand it, though, self-driving features like this aren’t legal in most places.”
He’s right. While there is no federal standard governing the use of self-driving technology in the United States—each state makes its own regulations—advanced driverless technologies like the one Musk describes (SAE Level 3 or above) generally can’t be used on public roads without a human being present to take control of the vehicle in case of an emergency.
Take California, Tesla’s home state and the largest market for electric vehicles in the U.S. “If a feature allows the operation of a vehicle without the active control or monitoring of a human operator, it can only be tested or deployed on public roads if a manufacturer has a permit from the DMV,” explains Marty Greenstein, public information officer for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “Along with public roads, the regulations apply to private parking facilities that do not charge a fee and are open for the use of retail customers. If a manufacturer wants to sell, lease or otherwise make their driverless capabilities commercially available, they will need to apply for a deployment, or public use, permit.”
To get one, the manufacturer must prove the safety of the feature beyond reasonable doubt. That’s possible, but very doubtful in the time period Musk specified.
The same is true in Europe. “Having a safety driver not only is necessary from a legal point of view but also provides valuable insight in understanding use cases and responses of the autonomous systems to even fine nuances,” said a Jaguar Land Rover representative. “This aids the prototype refinement and development.”
Newcomb says: “So under the current regulation, the only place that such an ‘enhanced’ Summon and Autopark system like the one described by Musk could be used is on private property, like on a big estate.” And what good is that?
And even if Tesla can obtain the proper permits and surmount the legal problem, it will face another challenge: While it might end up being the first to unveil a market-ready self-parking system, it will not be alone for long. At least 10 other manufacturers are testing advanced autonomous parking systems. Each system being researched allows the vehicle to automatically search for a parking spot, slot itself into the open space and then be summoned from that spot back to the original drop-off point when the driver/passenger is finished with dinner, or shopping, or whatever.
Volvo demonstrated its concept for autonomous parking as far back as 2013 in Gothenburg, Sweden. In front of a small group of journalists in a pedestrian-free zone, a company rep exited a self-diving XC90 and pressed a button on his smartphone, and the car searched for, found and parked in a vacant space by itself, without a driver inside the car. A second press of the button summoned the car back to the last location it had had contact with the driver.
Jaguar Land Rover demonstrated its self-driving valet earlier this year in the town of Milton Keynes, about an hour and a half north of London, as part of UK Autodrive, a £20.1 million government-funded research project exploring the challenges of introducing self-driving vehicles to the United Kingdom. A Range Rover Sport completed the same task as the Volvo; however, a safety driver was in the SUV, not standing on the sidelines. That individual was then met by an autonomous pod vehicle, which took him the “last mile” to his destination.
Ford, also part of UK Autodrive project, is testing a system called Collaborative Parking that is designed not to self-park a vehicle but rather to make finding a space easier. When a driver approaches a parking garage or lot, a diagram of the structure comes up on a display in the dashboard. Parking spots are marked filled (red) or empty (green). Drivers can reserve a space for their car and are then led to it. In this case, the motorist doesn’t have to waste time driving up and down streets or aisles to find an open space. Space availability is continually updated using data collected from parking sensors on other cars that have already circled the lot or street and shared it with newcomers. Ford insists that Collaborative Parking is simply a research project and that it has no plans to take the feature to production.
The VW Group has partnered with the Hamburg Airport in Germany to test its self-parking system in a private, pedestrian-free zone. Audi, Porsche and VW cars with the latest VW artificial intelligence technology can be dropped off at the entrance to an isolated parking garage at the airfield. After being logged in, the cars self-navigate to an empty spot within the structure and park themselves. When drivers are ready to be picked up, they simply message the vehicle, and the car will navigate back to the entrance. The VW Group reportedly hopes that all its brands—Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley and others—will feature this self-parking tech by 2020.
Daimler and Bosch are collaborating on a system that is being tested at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, also in a private, pedestrian-free safe zone. It operates like VW’s system, “but it is an infrastructure-supported system,” explains Newcomb. Instead of relying on the self-driving tech in the car, the car is guided by technology embedded in the garage, maneuvering in response to commands it receives from the building. When a user is ready to be picked up, the car is summoned via a smartphone app, the same as in the other systems.
Tesla’s media reps declined to elaborate on the development of the enhanced Summon and Autopark technology, when it will be available, what functionality it will offer or whether the company had considered its legality. A lack of details could certainly raise speculation that Musk is again promising something he can’t deliver, or at least can’t deliver promptly—one more thing for Tesla’s new chairwoman, Robyn Denholm, to consider.