How Ford is tackling one of the biggest challenges for self-driving cars

June 24, 2015, 1:27 AM UTC
The Ford logo is pictured at the Ford Motor Co plant in Genk
The Ford logo is pictured at the Ford Motor Co plant in Genk December 17, 2014. In 2012 Ford announced that production of the models made in Genk would move to Valencia, Spain, with the loss of 4,300 jobs at the Belgian site. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: BUSINESS LOGO EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT) - RTR4IF6M
Photograph by Francois Lenoir — Reuters

Every driver has had to pass up a choice parking place because it was too narrow. No point in maneuvering into a tight spot only to discover that you can’t squeeze out of the door.

Ford is trying to solve the problem with experimental self-driving technology that lets drivers step out of the car and leave their vehicle it to park itself. All drivers have to do is press a button on a key fob to make the car pull in and out of tight parking spots and garages entirely on its own.

The auto giant showed off a prototype at a press event Tuesday in San Francisco. The company is trying to show that it is on the cutting edge during a time of rapid evolution in the auto industry.

Car makers are racing to develop self-driving technology, which would let drivers sit back and relax while futuristic vehicles chauffeur them around town. Many traditional car companies are testing this technology including Ford, Audi and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz as are upstarts like Google (GOOG) and Tesla (TSLA).

Signaling its seriousness, Ford said Tuesday that it had elevated work on self-driving cars from mere research to an advanced engineering project. The new designation means that the company is hoping to make the required technology feasible for production, although executives acknowledge that it will likely take years before that happens.

“Autonomous vehicle technology is another step closer to production at Ford,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s group vice president for global product development.

Instead, on Tuesday, Ford (F) emphasized its existing semi-autonomous car technology including systems that automatically warn drivers about pedestrians in the roadway and potential collisions. If the driver fails to respond to the warnings, the system can automatically apply the brakes.

The technology, which is widely available in luxury vehicles by other manufacturers, is already an option for one of Ford’s European models. Ford said that it plans to premiere it a U.S. model next year.

Ford is trailing the competition when it comes to self-driving technology. CEO Mark Fields has responded by saying that the company isn’t focused on being the first to market, but instead want to bring the technology to mainstream car buyers.

The automated parking system Ford demonstrated Tuesday is one small step in Ford’s plan toward that goal. Parking by a self-driving car — without a human at the wheel — is a complex problem that researchers at virtually all car makers are trying to solve.

Many auto companies already sell systems that help drivers inside cars with parking, in many cases doing much of the steering for them. But leaving the job entirely to a computer while the driver stands outside makes things that much more complicated.

“This is a first step that everyone wants to take, but it’s a cliff,” said Joseph Urhahne, an engineer with Ford’s advanced driver assist program.

In this case, drivers approach the open spot they want with their car, get out and then, while standing nearby, press buttons on a key fob to signal to the car can go ahead and park on its own. Using sensors, the car can visualize the available parking space and pull into it — all without side-swiping any cars parked next to it.

For safety, the car keeps an eye open for potential dangers like someone walking behind it. If it detects something, the car stops in its tracks.

But the parking technology still has some kinks that need to be worked out. Occasionally during his demonstrations Tuesday, Urhahne had to reboot the car after its computer froze. Additionally, drivers must drop off their car within ten yards of the desired parking spot or its sensors will not detect it. Drivers must also stand near their car — within eight to ten yards — to control it with their key fob.

For more about self-driving cars, watch this Fortune video:


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