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stock-photo-barcelona-spain-february-two-cars-parked-in-the-street-of-barcelona-on-february-251729095WHY THEY’RE USEFUL:

Nobody really enjoys parking

WHO’S WORKING ON THEM:

All the major automakers

WHEN WILL THEY HIT THE ROAD?

Parking-assist functions have been around for several years, but fully autonomous driverless parking is still a ways off

Parking may be the most tedious thing about driving. Even for veteran urban dwellers, parallel parking can be a challenge. And nobody enjoys circling a crowded shopping-center parking lot, jockeying with other irritated drivers for the few open spaces.

That’s one reason carmakers have been busy for years adding parking-assist features that help drivers squeeze into and out of tight spots. Cameras and sensors mounted in car bumpers measure the distance between the car and surrounding obstacles, allowing a semi-automated system to turn the steering wheel, move and brake to navigate into spaces. The driver typically still has to perform some functions, however, such as shifting between forward and reverse.

Next up are cars that can park themselves at the push of a button. Engineers with Ford’s European division have developed a system that can search for a parking space and pull into it, without the driver even being in the car, a potential benefit in tight spaces where it’s hard to open your car doors. Audi and Volvo have demoed similar technology.

In the fall, Honda in Japan demonstrated a driverless valet-parking system that uses wireless communication between Wi-Fi-enabled cars and a series of cameras placed in the four corners of a parking lot. Motorists drive to a drop-off point, get out of the car and watch as the car steers itself to an open space. When the driver is ready to leave, he or she uses a phone to summon the car, which drives itself to the pickup area.

This could be a time-saver for people at sprawling shopping centers and a huge help to drivers with physical limitations. Such a system also could be used to fit more cars into places where space is limited, such as a small parking lot in a popular nightlife district.

It might be a while before fully autonomous parking comes to production vehicles. In Europe, laws prohibit motorists from leaving the engine running with nobody in the driver’s seat. And in the U.S., only four states allow autonomous cars on public roads, and then only when a driver is behind the wheel. Determining liability in fender-benders involving self-parking cars could be complicated.

And the technology still needs to be fine-tuned before it’s 100% reliable and drivers will trust it.

“Every parking garage is a little different,” explained Maarten Sierhuis, director of Nissan’s research center in Silicon Valley, on the challenges of designing self-parking systems. “Automated parking seems like a relatively easy next step. But it’s not.”

Still, cars that can drop you off at a restaurant in a rainstorm and go park themselves are an advancement that should excite just about everyone. Except maybe valet-parking attendants.

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