Columbia-based STEER, which unveiled an autonomous parking solution at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is now the first company in Maryland to test the technology, which transforms everyday cars into driverless vehicles.
Here’s how it works: Consumers drop their cars off at a destination, the car drives itself into a parking spot, then consumers summon the car via a mobile app.
Anuja Sonalker, STEER founder and CEO, estimated that consumers spend as many as 108 hours per year just looking for a parking spot — not including additional time spent parking and walking to a destination.
STEER is partnered with Visteon, an automotive cockpit technology company, to develop the hardware and software platform, which is called DriveCore.
“We are currently testing with a number of Maryland mass transportation locations and plan to have a product on the market in 2019,” said Sonalker. “The first application is an aftermarket product consumers can purchase and install in select late-model-year automobiles.”
STEER works with existing in-car technology systems but is, Sonalker said, a highly sophisticated system and needs to be installed by a professional. “Shortly thereafter, we anticipate the technology being available in new models.”
First in Maryland
Part of a national trend of marketing autonomous driving technology, STEER located in Columbia because, given the ever-evolving regulation around autonomous vehicles in the marketplace, STEER wanted to be in close proximity to D.C., while having the appropriate amount of space to test its technology in secure environments.
STEER’S Columbia location allows the company to market test rapidly, said Sonalker, and the company will test its autonomous parking technology at lots owned by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“Maryland is deeply invested in innovative solutions to address congestion and improve safety,” said MDOT Secretary Pete Rahn, in a statement.
Sonalker said STEER was supported in its incubation phase by the Howard County Economic Development Authority, and later from the MDOT in its testing endeavors, including being the first in the state to pass the certification process for testing autonomous technology in Maryland.
“Additionally, we feel suburban residents outside of major cities such as D.C. will be primary users of STEER technology, given their driving habits and commuting pain points,” she said.
Vehicle technology is a growing field and has been for years, said Allie Fried, director of Global Event Communications for the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Technology Association, which run the CES show.
“In total for 2018, we had more than 400 exhibitors self-identify as presenting automotive technology,” she said, “and our dedicated automotive footprint was almost 300,000 net square feet of exhibit space, up roughly 23% over last year.”
Were it dedicated solely to the automotive industry, this would make CES the fifth largest stand-alone auto show in the country. “We had a record 12 automakers in exhibits or meeting space, many showing off self-driving features or concepts: BMW, Byton, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen,” Fried said.
The legal community is trying to develop regulations to keep up with the rapidly advancing technology, said Gregory Rodriguez, a lawyer with Best, Best & Kreiger, in Washington, D.C., who specializes in the legal aspects of autonomous driving vehicles.
“The federal government is trying to figure out its role in all of this,” said Rodriguez. “It doesn’t want to be too heavy-handed and stymie the innovation.”
Rodriguez said his clients are excited about innovation, but also concerned about public safety.
“Right now, we are starting to see more pilot projects get on the road, but there is not enough data to truly understand how these vehicles will operate in our communities,” he said. “What really gets complicated is that it’s not just changing the general standards with safety, but state laws when you think about a definition of a driver.”
When you’re administering a driving test, for example, can you mandate a driving test for a computer? As he helps determine answers to questions like this, Rodriguez said he is seeing a lot more excitement and a lot more interest in autonomous driving technology.
“When we consider automated parking technology, we get to issues around land use,” said Rodriguez. “Communities are also trying to figure out if there’s a potential that automated vehicles could reduce the demand on parking.”
Drivers could call an automated car only when they need it, said Rodriguez. “But then is the car going to stay on the road, constantly picking people up, or will it need to go into a storage or parking area?”