Mankind has been obsessed with and fascinated by autonomous vehicles for the last few decades. In the 1997 timeless classic – “Tomorrow Never Dies”, James Bond controlled and steered his car using his mobile phone and left audiences enthralled, wondering when they could do the same in their cars. Cut to 2020, and such features are a reality in some of today’s most advanced cars.
McKinsey & Company had predicted that driverless cars would be adopted by the masses by 2030 and few commercial self-driving cars or robotic taxis could be available as early as 2022. So let’s take stock of where we are today and what the future looks like.
At the NextGen event in June 2019, BMW demonstrated level 4 capabilities in their flagship 7 series prototype, wherein passengers can summon the vehicle using a smartphone and also interact with the car using a tablet to request the car to go to a place of their liking! BMW has been testing L3 capabilities in the A9 autobahn for quite some time now and is anticipated to feature in the 2021 model of BMW iNext.  The University of Michigan introduced autonomous shuttles powered by Navya in their M-CITY facility. Though the shuttle travels at a top speed of 12 mph and can traverse only fixed routes, the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles in the public domain is itself a commendable achievement. Waymo, also known formerly as Google’s self-driving car initiative, has even started offering autonomous robotic taxi services to customers in Phoenix, Arizona, without “safety drivers” in place. 
Browsing through such demos and events makes us feel like the future has arrived. However, the reality in today’s world is that such initiatives are only springing up in few pockets and geo-restricted spaces across cities. They’re actually far away in terms of mass acceptance and deployment of the technology. Lack of regulations, the massive cost of development coupled with expensive hardware systems, and limited consumer trust in travelling in a vehicle driven by a machine have all been hampering the future of autonomous cars. These have been the primary reasons for self-driving features not rolling out to production-ready cars just yet.
For most OEMs, the farthest they have been able to go in terms of production-ready cars is the Level 2 automation, which can also be classified as ADAS (Advanced driver assistance systems). Tesla’s autopilot, Polestar’s pilot assist, and Nissan’s pro pilot all classify as ADAS features, and have further ambitions to grow into a complete self-driving suite leading to L5 in the future. So what obstacles are preventing them from making it to the finish line?
Automotive OEMs must find a way to ensure that full autonomous driving features get rolled out to consumers in a phased manner, given the lack of ecosystem to support such driving behaviors in most roads across the world. Over the last few months, however, manufacturers may have finally found the key to unlock potential through a simple yet critical aspect of the self-driving journey - the autonomous valet parking feature.
Autonomous valet parking is a mechanism by which cars can park themselves in designated or shared spots across parking lots once passengers disembark at a drop-off zone. This pioneering functionality uses all the key features and mechanisms that have been at the forefront of unmanned vehicle development.
From using sensor data to perceiving the surrounding environment, to autonomous compute platforms and the overlaying algorithms to steer the vehicle, plus the interaction with the surroundings (parking spots) using V2X technology, the vehicle performs complete autonomous driving albeit in a limited environment. This represents a victory for the industry, so much so that an increasing number of OEMs are now looking at it as a gateway to complete L5 driving.
Some of the typical features of the AVP suite include the existing ADAS functionalities like automated emergency breaking, automated parking assist and lane-keeping assist, which are coupled with autonomous driving features like parking slot identification, V2X interactions with parking sensors, and lane-change maneuvers.