There are self-driving cars, then there are self-driving cars. Today at CES, Audi showed me the former.
The A7 parked in the cul-de-sac of Las Vegas' luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel looked no different than any other that you might see on the street, but this was a special demonstrator of Audi's "piloted driving" system for automated parking. It works like this: you walk out of the mall, you want your car. You open an app on your smartphone, press a button, and the car drives out to you. Pretty awesome — and it works the opposite way, too.
The reality is far more complex, though. One of the reasons this car looks completely normal — as opposed to, say, a Google-modified Prius — is because it's being guided by an array of laser scanners embedded in the garage that communicate to the car over Wi-Fi, keeping it abreast of its precise location and any obstructions nearby. In other words, much of the work is being outsourced to the parking garage itself. This trick isn't going to work just anywhere — you've got to be in a venue that's been specially fitted with equipment that the car can talk to as it maneuvers.
It's strictly for short distance hauls
That also means this car can't drive at roadway or highway speeds, it's strictly for short distance hauls at extremely low speeds (during the demo, the A7 never traveled more than a few miles per hour). It's a restricted use case, which significantly limits the number of variables the car needs to consider — it's a simpler system with simpler goals.
It's a self-driving car, not a truly self-driving car. Yes, Audi's working on real self-driving cars, too — just as Google, Lexus, and others are — but it didn't have anything to show here at CES.
When can you get an Audi equipped with this come-pick-me-up tech? Not any time soon. There are the obvious challenges of building support with enough parking facilities around the world to justify making the feature available, and our demo was performed under the most controlled circumstances imaginable; add in a real-world scenario with unpredictable pedestrians, weather considerations, and local laws, and it becomes an entirely different ball game.
Okay, Audi, take me back to the convention center, please.