This car will park itself: Somerville, Audi prepare to test self-driving tech

An artist's rendering of a proposed self-parking garage.
An artist's rendering of a proposed self-parking garage.

Just as objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, self-driving cars may catch up to Greater Boston sooner than residents expect.

The City of Somerville took a step towards a driverless future recently, partnering with Audi to test a variety of self-driving car technologies in city over the next few years.

“We are both interested in testing new technologies in the city of Somerville,” said Daniel Hadley, chief of staff to Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who signed signed a memorandum of understanding last week with the German car maker to that effect.

Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.
Megacities the world over have plans in the works to make room for self-driving cars, a technologist that experts say will be transformative for ground transport. For example, the GATEway project expects to begin testing pod cars in Greenwich, near London, in 2016, Sweden expects to have 100 self-driving Volvo cars on the road by 2017, and Singapore has been testing driverless cars for years, much of that through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. The new partnership is Somerville’s attempt to keep up.

“What are the implications for city policies, parking policies, how we zone things? All those things are question marks that not enough cities are puzzling about,” Hadley said.

Audi's central driver assistance control unit (zFAS).
Audi's central driver assistance control unit (zFAS).
The first of two proposed projects is planned for Union Square, where one idea is to test smart traffic lights that will communicate with approaching cars and potentially ease congestion. “If the cars are talking to [traffic lights] for example, will there be less traffic? Are pedestrians safer in this scenario?” Those are among the questions that city would like to investigate, Hadley said.

Another test is planned for the booming Assembly Square area, where the plan is to use the outlet mall’s parking bays to test Audi’s self-parking technology, which the car maker first announced in 2013.

“Our test fleet with piloted parking technology will start in Somerville by 2018. This will also be a testing ground for the user experience, showing how the new service has to be customized for use in daily life,” Lisa Füting, project manager with Audi Urban Future Initiative, wrote in an e-mail.

In the works since 2012, Audi’s parking technology allows a driver to get out at the entrance to a mall, and then with the help of an app, instruct the car to seek out a an empty space and park itself in a parking garage. When she is ready to leave, the driver can summon the car back to the entrance with the same app. The company debuted the technology in 2013 at the Consumer Electronics Show.

The parking test and feature could be a step toward broader acceptance of the technology, for people and cities, Füting said, with benefits for drivers and developers alike. Car owners will save time and the annoyance of driving in circles around a garage, and the structures themselves will fit some 60 percent more cars by eliminating the space between cars needed to open doors. Audi will supply the cars that are included in the project, but details of how many cars will be available and how they will be used have yet to be worked out.

Car owners apparently can’t wait. A report published this week by the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group found that car owners who said they would pay for a self-driving cars flagged a self-parking feature as the most attractive perk.

But drivers may change their mind once the theoretical car of the future is ahead of them at the stop sign, which makes it more important to test them in real situations. “It isn’t clear how most people will feel until they really see it in action,” Brandon Schoettle, a transportation researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor wrote in an e-mail.

For example, the automated parallel parking function, a lower-tech version of the system Audi has in mind, has elicited conflicting responses from people surveyed, he explained: “They either love it or hate it.”

Somerville already hosts the clean-tech startup incubator, Greentown Labs, where business-minded engineers are working in overdrive to build urban farms and floating wind-turbines  — hardware solutions to big-picture problems. This spring, the city launched a program to have startups use the city as a lab for their civic innovations, and the first of those is already testing a prototype weather measurement tool tested in two locations, with a view to equipping the city to respond more effectively to weather emergencies. Somerville was also the birthplace of MegaBots, the crew of artist-engineers who built giant dueling robots and then moved to San Francisco, spoiling for a fight. The new partnership is just another way the city is gearing up to face the future.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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