I remember the first time I saw a commercial advertising a new car's ability to parallel park itself. If my memory serves me correctly, there may have been some champagne glasses lining the spot. I thought to myself: "No way, a car that does it without the driver's help? Nah." Well, after watching this video of Volkswagen’s autonomous vehicle whipping itself into a spot marked with cones, I am, once again, finding myself in disbelief. Take a look at the video--you don't want to miss this!
Whether or not you think this feature is practical or necessary (or safe) for upcoming passenger vehicles, you've got to admit it's really cool. Useful or not, the Volkswagen Passat's ability to slide itself into the space between the cones is the result of impressive engineering. The equipment and software controlling the vehicle must be able to anticipate the effects of its maneuvers, and compensate for momentum, changes in speed, friction, and orientation, among other things.
You probably noticed, as I did, a set of skid marks in the dust as the vehicle backs up towards the parking spot. If you watch carefully, you can see that the tires follow the exact same path while performing the skid caught on video. This leads me to believe the powerslide must be done under very specific, repeatable conditions. Even so, the fact that it exactly follows its own path each time is quite impressive. This means the algorithms and controls used to guide the Passat through its slide are very consistent and repeatable too.
With the help of Stanford University, Volkswagen developed the autonomous Passat Wagon to compete in the DARPA Urban Challenge (although powersliding is not an official DARPA event). The goal for this type of vehicle is for engineers to push the limits of autonomous vehicle controls with technologies that could make their way into cars of the future. Do I think this option will be added with the next major model update of the Passat? No. It is, however, valuable progress in the world of automotive design. I foresee autonomous drifting competitions.