Autonomous Driving: Reaching New Levels

Daimler and Bosch go to Level 4 automation for valet parking

Last week, Daimler and Bosch got the green light from German authorities to operate what’s probably the world’s first fully automated driverless parking system. It will be implemented at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. This development is another signal in the long road to getting self-driving systems based on artificial intelligence to be truly autonomous. The system has been categorized as Level 4 autonomy.

Level 4 autonomy is a designation by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) that means a vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention. The driver can sleep and even leave the driver’s seat. There have been other Level 4 trials in the works, but all of them have involved people behind the wheel as a backup. At Level 5, a car can drive in all conditions, and it’s said that the steering wheel becomes optional.

Daimler and Bosch began development of their system in 2015 when they started a pilot at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in 2017, with and without drivers. In 2018, museum visitors accompanied by trained safety staff were allowed to use the system and provided valuable feedback about their experience. This latest approval clears the way for use of the automated parking system without an on-board safety driver. The nod comes four years after the companies started working together on the technology.

The automated parking system uses Bosch sensors placed in the parking garage of the museum and autonomous-vehicle technology from Mercedes-Benz. Drivers pull up to the garage and tap in a few commands on a smartphone app, which directs the car to a parking space. Technology in the vehicle converts commands from the sensors in the garage into driving manoeuvres, to the extent of being able to drive the car up and down travel ramps. If a sensor detects an obstacle, the vehicle stops immediately. When the driver returns, they send instructions through the smartphone app and the process is repeated in reverse, for the car to come back to the drop-off point.

Several technology and car companies have been vying to be first to have autonomous cars on roads. Bosch and Daimler also made their intentions in autonomous mobility clear with a partnership in 2017 that aimed to roll out self-driving cars during the next decade. And last year, the two companies reaffirmed their commitment to pilot “highly” and “fully” autonomous vehicles as part of an on-demand ride-hailing service later in 2019. With this experiment, Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans capable of Levels 4 and 5 of automation are expected to offer service to “selected user communities” in the San Carlos and Stevens Creek corridor in downtown San Jose.

True autonomous driving is, despite ambitious talk, still several years away from being ready for real-world, mass-market use. This new automated valet parking system is still a far cry from the magic that’s envisioned with autonomous driving. Nonetheless, it’s consistent with CCS Insight’s expectation that autonomous driving will appear first in very closely controlled environments, where the experience and implementation can be very carefully monitored. Indeed, autonomous parking alone demonstrates the complexity of fully autonomous driving. Some key ingredients are still missing, including a robust connectivity network, advanced vehicle systems and government approval, and of course, trust from the public.