We keep harping on how regular car buyers aren’t going to be able to buy fully automated self-driving cars for many years to come, and the same goes for autonomous car rentals. But, autonomy is being introduced to our society sooner than that. Self-driving semis operating in platoons on our highways promise to ease our desperate shortage of long-haul truckers, autonomous low-speed passenger shuttles are in service on campuses and elsewhere now, and using technology developed by Ford and Bosch, your next rental car may very well be able to drive itself—only without you in the car.

No, you won’t have to wait for one of the 100,000 new Hertz Tesla Model 3s on order, it will be available on affordable rentals like the Ford Escape demonstrator vehicles pictured here, which will only go autonomous after you climb out of one in the rental-car return lane.

It All Started with Automated Valet Parking

Ford and Bosch have been collaborating on this concept for some time now, and we described its deployment in automated valet parking scenarios last year. To recap, this system is designed to help property owners maximize the return on their parking-structure investment.

That’s why Bedrock Detroit realty group, which owns one-third of the public parking real estate in Detroit, became a partner in the Detroit Smart Parking Lab along with the American Center for Mobility and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Now Enterprise Rent-A-Car has joined the consortium, with an eye toward automating the rental-car return process (and perhaps the summoning of cars going out on loan), to hasten these processes and reduce the number of human personnel required.

Software Onboard, Sensor Hardware Off-Board

The key to swift implementation of automated parking for any scenario is moving the expensive sensor suite from the vehicle to the infrastructure. The Detroit Smart Parking Lab test garage is outfitted with lidar units, but a similar deployment already up and running in the P6 parking garage at the Stuttgart airport that employs less expensive stereo camera units to sense the car and any potential obstacles.

With the high-cost hardware out of the car, all that’s needed onboard is an automatic transmission with electronic shifting, remote-start capability, electric power steering, and of course ABS and stability control (to actuate the brakes). The car also needs to have some software onboard, and a vehicle-to-infrastructure control module is also needed. The Detroit Smart Parking Lab is using 802.11 WiFi communications, but 5G works as well. This is the one component a company like Enterprise would likely need to install in most of its current and near future fleet vehicles to enable automated rental car return (and summoning). Cost estimates for this have not yet been made public, but they will pale by comparison to lidar.

How It Will Work

You’ll drive up, surrender the keys to an attendant and go on your way. The attendant will check the car in, scan the exterior for damage, the interior for forgotten items, return the key fob to the car, and then dispatch it via a mobile app. This app orders the garage infrastructure to communicate with the car, start it, and drive it to the interior cleaning station. When finished, the cleaning crew will use its app to send the car to the exterior wash rack. Here, the automation stands to improve quality, as most rental places utilize a rack design through which the car must slowly drive to get clean. An attendant in a rush can short-change this step. From there, the car is dispatched to a parking area to await its next rental.

Bonus: HEVO Wireless Charging

Also on hand for this week’s Detroit Smart Parking Lab demo was Brooklyn-based wireless charging startup HEVO, which is licensing compact polyphase electromagnetic coil technology developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oakridge National Laboratory to provide fast, ultra-high-efficiency (90-93 percent) wireless charging according to the SAE J2954 standard.

So, if the future Hertz Tesla fleet garage were automated and the cars had wireless charging receiver pads installed, they could add a step to autonomously park each cars over a charger to replenish its battery before re-parking itself so as to allow another EV to charge. HEVO claims that any company operating a fleet of 60 EVs could save millions in EV charging stations and other costs by automating its overnight parking area and allowing multiple EVs to charge up on fewer HEVO wireless pads.

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