A glimpse of the future

Driverless parking and charging for e-Mobility

Imagine, you drive your e-car to go shopping. In front of the shopping mall you order your car to the parking area with a simple click on a button of your smartphone. Your car moves autonomously to the parking lot and drives into a vacant parking bay. If the car needs recharging the battery, it moves to a nearby recharging station first, before it parks itself. When you are done shopping, you just hit the button on your smartphone and your car arrives to pick you up at the entrance of the shopping mall. 

It’s on a sunny morning in July 2015, on a car park deck of the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. A group of journalists from Ireland are watching a car moving slowly out of a parking lot, driving a round on the park floor, stopping to let a pedestrian cross and a car pass and finally parking itself over a mat, which inductively will charge its batteries. The Irish journalists are excited. There is no driver in the car! It is magically driving itself, led by a couple of on-board cameras and sensors as well as a 3D map of the building in its software system. “We just witnessed another important glimpse of motoring future”, comments the astonished automotive expert Eddie Cunningham  from the Irish Independent Newspaper to Roland Siegwart from ETH Zurich, standing just beside him. 

The Irish journalists were flown in this morning by Volkswagen to join a promotion event for the new hybrid model Passat GTE. And they are not the only ones. The car manufacturer has rented a whole parking floor at the Amsterdam airport for ten days for its promotion campaign and flies in groups of journalists from all over Europe on a daily basis. But besides presenting the new hybrid model, VW also takes the opportunity to offer a glance into the future by presenting a self-parking and self-charging e-car. It is the result of “V-charge”, the EU-financed project jointly run by four universities and two partners from industry: Volkswagen and Bosch. Roland Siegwart, Professor of Autonomous Systems at ETH Zurich, is one of the fathers of „V-Charge“. Over coffee at the parking floor at Amsterdam Airport, he tells us how an idea turned into a successful project. In 2010, he met Jan Effertz from Volkswagen during a conference on autonomous cars. The two researchers quickly realised that they shared a common vision and common interests. Still at the conference, they sketched a draft for a joint EU project, set the goals and discussed suitable partners. A few months later, Roland Siegwart on behalf of Volkswagen, Bosch and four European universities submitted the project of a self-parking and charging car to the EU Commission. The project was approved and “V-Charge” started in 2011 with Roland Siegwart taking the lead as coordinator. Now, as the project has come to its end, Roland Siegwart decided to fly to Amsterdam for a day to see how journalists react to the demonstration of “V-Charge”. He is quite happy about the great interest and the positive reactions. But he is even happier about the scientific and technical results and the impact of the project on his team. “As a university we are educating young people. In this project they learnt how to manage complexity and to collaborate with others in very interdisciplinary teams with different partners in an international environment.” As another great asset, Roland Siegwart mentions the collaboration with industry. “It is important to have partners like Volkswagen or Bosch, which set the specifications and goals on the part of the industry, so we are really challenged to move towards a useful technology. You can’t do it in an office or lab at the university. You really need the interaction with people who know about the application and who later also evaluate the results of our research. Industry pushes you towards demonstrating what the true values of your results are.”

Many good reasons to join EU collaborative projects

Roland Siegwart is a very experienced project coordinator. “V-charge” has been his fourth EU-funded project as a coordinator and there were four others he guided as co-coordinator. Many of his academic colleagues are reluctant when it comes to coordinating an EU project. They are afraid of the administration and EU bureaucracy. We ask Roland Siegwart why he likes to coordinate projects. He has a clear answer: “As a coordinator you are really at the forefront to define the vision. You can specify what the goal should be and you can also invite the partners. My experience is that in all projects with ETH coordination, we were very successful in having the projects approved.” And regarding EU administration he adds: “Some people overestimate the bureaucracy with Brussels. It is not their goal to produce a lot of administration. Many of these projects are pretty lean.” So what is the key to be successful in coordinating an EU-funded project? Roland Siegwart has a precise strategy: “Above all, you need competence, complementary and small teams. Then it is easy to run projects on this level. If you have large consortia it is more difficult. I think something between four and six partners is ideal.” Based on his experience, Roland Siegwart strongly recommends scientists to apply for EU funds. “It is a really good funding source which allows to have a critical mass of people working together. It is not only one PhD student; ultimately, there are probably 20 PhD students, postdocs, scientists and technicians working together. The impact is much greater and together with the industry you also have to measure your results towards real application.” For young scientists he has a special advice: “I would probably not recommend that very young scientists, e.g. assistant professors on tenure track, coordinate a project. But they should really join a consortium with good partners and then do great research. It also helps the PhD students which are involved in the project to exchange with other PhD students, with industry partners, which is a very strong added value for research and collaboration.” And what does he recommend young scientists consider when they wish to successfully propose their project to Brussels? “It’s not enough to simply get five friends together and see what could be done together. It is really the best way to have a clear vision to begin with, originating from a small discussion group of two to three people and then go forward to inviting others. It is not about doing a project with friends. It is about defining a vision which is convincing and gathering the best partners.”

Self-parking cars within 10 years

In the meantime, the Irish journalists have left the parking floor. Gradually, further groups of journalists form Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Belgium appear at the demonstration site on this July morning at Amsterdam airport. All of them are surprised when the “V-Charge” car turns up without driver and they are quite impressed by the “glimpse of motoring future” they are witnessing. Many of them want to know when self-parking and self-recharging cars will be part of our real life. Roland Siegwart and Wojciech Derendarz, who is responsible for the project at Volkswagen, admit that there are still a number of obstacles to be overcome. One of the problems is to equip all parking facilities with electronic maps that the car can download into its electronic system. 

«Some people overestimate
the bureaucracy with Brussels.»

Wojciech Derendarz assumes that the system could be ready for operation by the end of this decade on some single floors in some limited numbers of car parks. But he believes that it will take another decade until self-parking and self-charging cars will be part of the normal mixed traffic. However, the future is just around the corner. The results of the “V-Charge” project will pass now from the research to the development department of Volkswagen. And Roland Siegwart has agreed on a follow-up project with the car manufacturer. At the end of this day in Amsterdam, on the flight back to Zurich, he tells us about his new EU-funded project within the Horizon 2020 framework that he will coordinate. Its name is “Flourish” and it is all about robotics helping to improve farming. But this would be another story.

V-CHARGE - Pragmatic innovation

A car, equipped with a smart system, can drive autonomously within a designated area (e.g. valet parking, park and ride, airport parking), stop at a recharging station in the parking lot, charge its battery and then move to a free parking space to wait there until it is called to drive back and pick up its owner. This was the goal of the project “V-Charge”. 

To reach the goal, the project team equipped a normal car with off-the-shelf cameras and ultrasonic sensors arranging them for a 360 degree coverage of the surroundings. Connected to a remote parking lot server, the vehicle receives a specially designed map for localization and road-networking information for the parking lot. The localization map stores visual information of all the places in the parking facility, enabling the car to determine its position with respect to the map by using its camera images. This technology does not rely on GPS sensors and allows the car to navigate also in indoor environments such as underground parking spaces where GPS is not available. It was perfected to provide centimetre-level accuracy. Thanks to its smart system, the car can also recognise other moving vehicles and pedestrians in order to stop in time. In the background, the parking lot server computes a time schedule for the car, based on the requested drop-off and pickup times, making the most efficient use of a potentially limited number of charging stations by prioritizing imminent pickups. The owner of the car communicates with its vehicle by smartphone, simply pushing a button to send the car off and to call it back. The V-Charge team used contemporary cameras and close-to-market sensors, which are already installed in most of the up-to-date cars today. Work remains to be done in order to achieve higher levels of automation in the mapping processes and enable multiple automated vehicles to constantly contribute data to keep maps up to date. Allowing the system to learn behaviour of other road users and improve navigation over time will further promote smooth integration into everyday mixed-traffic operation.

Source: Press Release V-Charge, July 2015

EU GrantsAccess’ Project Management Group

EU GrantsAccess’ Project Management Group attempts to assist researchers from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich that are coordinating the so-called collaborative research projects within Horizon 2020. Such collaborative projects mostly require the coordination of a 3-4 year period including mostly between 8 to 15 partner institutions from all over Europe. Members of the Project Management Group are then full members of the UZH or ETH Zurich coordinator’s consortium and take over the administrative parts of the project. Regina Notz, leader of the Project Management Group, was managing “V-Charge” over the last four years and is already teaming up again with Roland Siegwart for his new collaborative research project called “Flourish” as a coordinator.

Members of the Project Management Group:

Katharina Eggenberger, Regina Notz, Jonas Oehler, Luca Wacker 

„Thanks to Regina Notz of EU GrantsAccess who took care of all administrative coordination matters I was able to fully concentrate on the scientific advances. She organised highly competent meetings, collected reportings from partners and negotiated possible ambiguities with the European Commission.“ Roland Siegwart

Interview with Roland Siegwart
Roland Siegwart

Roland Siegwart is founding Co-Director of “Wyss Zurich” and Professor of Autonomous Mobile Robots at ETH Zurich. He studied mechanical engineering at ETH, spent ten years as professor at EPFL (1996 to 2006), was Vice President of ETH Zurich (2010 to 2014) and held visiting positions at Stanford University and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Roland Siegwart was the coordinator of multiple European projects and co-founder of half a dozen spin-off companies. He is recipient of the IEEE RAS Inaba Technical Award, IEEE Fellow and Officer of the International Federation of Robotics Research (IFRR). Furthermore, he is on the editorial board of multiple journals in robotics and acted as general chair at several conferences in robotics, including IROS 2002, AIM 2007, FSR 2007 and ISRR 2009. His interests are in the design and navigation of wheeled, walking and flying robots operating in complex and highly dynamical environments.

EU projects

Roland Siegwart has been participating in numerous EU collaborative projects as coordinator or partner. He also coordinated “V-Charge: Automated Valet Parking and Charging for e-Mobility”, a collaborative research project between universities and industry (contract #269916). Project partners were ETH Zurich, the universities of Braunschweig, Oxford and Parma as well as the companies Bosch GmbH and Volkswagen AG. The project was supported with funding from EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Developement and had an overall budget of 5.63 million Euros. It started on 1st June 2011 and was completed on 30th September 2015.