Researchers from Germany, Italy, the UK,and Switzerland are working on a system that will allow drivers to leave their vehicles at the main entrance of an airport and for the car to park itself. Successful tests of the new technology have taken place at Stuttgart airport earlier this year. EU funding totaling €5.6 million has been invested in the system which will be available in the coming years, according to EU researchers.

In the future, more people are expected to be driving electric cars and will switch from one mode of transport to another – creating the need for more and varied parking options at transport hubs, according to the researchers. To prepare for this mobility shift, the V-CHARGE consortium, which is part of the EU investment program in robotics, is working on a fully automated parking and charging system for electric cars at public car parks.

"The idea is that we can actually use technology to give people a better mix of public and private transport", explained Paul Furgale, Ph.D., scientific project manager for V-CHARGE and deputy director of the autonomous systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. 

The robotic system will allow drivers to leave their cars in front of the car park and use a smartphone app to trigger the parking process. The vehicle will connect with the car park’s server and drive itself to the designated space. While in the garage, the car can also be programmed to go to a charging station. Upon returning, the driver uses the same app to summon the car – fully charged and ready to go.

Since GPS satellite signals don’t always work inside garages, the scientists said they have developed a camera-based system based on their expertise in robotics and environment sensing. Safety is at the center of the project: the car is designed to avoid unexpected obstacles.

Furgale believes the same technology could be used to develop autonomous parking systems for electric cars on city streets. "That will be more of a challenge", he said. "But once you have the maps in place, the rest of the technology will come together."

In April, the team presented the latest version of the system at Stuttgart airport, which they termed a success. The researchers are now fine-tuning the technology to tackle more precise manoeuvers.

The project is set to conclude in 2015, and its results available to be progressively commercialized in the coming years, according to the researchers. The functions developed should be cost-effective enough to be integrated into production of electric vehicles. Engineers are working with equipment that is already available today such as ultrasonic sensors and stereo cameras that are used in parking assistance and emergency braking systems.