Startup develops self-parking tech
Startup Offers Parking Autonomy To Almost Any Vehicle
The popular Hyundai commercial for its Smart Park system that aired during this year’s Super Bowl got a lot of people taking on a Boston accent, yammering about remotely “pahking” their “cahs.” But a Maryland-based start up has come up with an automated way to not only park your car, but un-park it, avoid obstacles, like people or other vehicles, and pick you up…just like a valet. All it takes is an add-on module, camera and a smartphone app.
The system is the brainchild of longtime automotive cybersecurity engineer and executive Anuja Sonalker who founded Annapolis Junction, MD -based STEER Tech in 2016. While automakers and tech companies are spending billions to create fully autonomous vehicles, Sonalker says it dawned on her during the course of her previous work, today’s vehicles have so much technology already built in, it’s not necessary to start from scratch to imbue them with at least some level of autonomy not included in automated driver assist systems (ADAS).
“The philosophy is I could take an existing stock vehicle, with existing sensors built for ADAS systems, add just incrementally what’s required in order to make this an automated function—low speed driving, parking in parking lots,” she animatedly explained in an interview via Zoom.
STEER started with what it calls its L2+ system which mirrors the Hyundai Smart Park feature that allows a driver to remotely pull a car in or out of parking spot. Sonalker says where it really comes in handy is pulling out of a parking spot that’s so tight you wouldn’t otherwise be able to open the doors without damaging them, or the door of the adjacent vehicles. If the car senses an obstacle, it will override the operator’s command to move and wait till the coast is clear before resuming the action.
But STEER has now moved far beyond L2+ with its new L4 system with myriad more sophisticated features including Valet. With that, you can step out of the vehicle, give it commands via smartphone app to drive itself, search for a parking spot, watching out all the time for pedestrians or other vehicles, even detecting and obeying stop signs. When you’re ready to roll again, you summon the vehicle and it picks you up at a designated location. Unlike a valet, there’s no need for tipping.
Sonalker walked outside STEER’s headquarters and demonstrated the L4 system for us as seen in this video.
STEER’s L4 system is now being tested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, using what Sonalker calls “underutilized” areas of its parking decks.
“There will be an area that the car will drive to and park there, so you can drop yourself off right at the airport…walk into terminal and the car will park itself in an area that’s less utilized,” Sonalker explained.
There are other similar systems, such as Tesla TSLA’s Summon feature, but Sonalker says the STEER technology offers something that Tesla doesn’t—avoiding expensive hardware upgrades if newer software is incompatible.
“Because we built it all together we can promise you that this software will handle this hardware,” she said.
Another key element of the STEER valet feature with the L4 system is its network. Businesses or individuals who want to designate particular parking spaces register them on the STEER network. Consumers pay a flat monthly fee of about $20 a month if they use the valet service. The fee for fleets is based on the number of vehicles.
Sonalker says STEER is working with one automaker to offer the system as a dealer installed option and two others who would make it an option that could be installed in the factory. She wasn’t at liberty to divulge which automakers expressed such interest.
For consumers, the L4 system is now available at a rock bottom, what Sonalker calls an “introductory” price of $1,200 in order to “feed the market.” It’s being offered initially in the Maryland, Virginia, Washington D.C. area and then nationally.
“I want to educate. I want people to use it, experience it,” said Sonalker.
After all, she points out, when it comes to driving, parking is “the most frustrating part of the journey.”