Automotive News: Maryland startup finds self-parking spot
LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md. — While others chase the dream of developing autonomous systems capable of driving for miles and miles along public roads, Steer, a Maryland technology startup, has found a niche developing a fully self-driving system that operates in private parking lots.
Imagine arriving at the airport, unloading luggage at the curb, and then sending a vehicle to park itself instead of spending time hunting for a spot in the nether reaches of long-term parking. That’s one scenario Steer is currently piloting in a project at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland.
Or imagine shoppers emerging from a mall with bags in hand, able to summon their own car via an app to pick them up at the entrance.
While surveys suggest nearly three-quarters of consumers are afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, Steer founder and CEO Anuja Sonalker bets they won’t mind driving their own car, then sending it away to park itself.
Even though this is a Level 4 autonomous system, she’d prefer consumers think of this as something beyond the technology itself.
“What we are selling is convenience, and convenience is a narcotic,” Sonalker said. “In this day and age, consumers are very savvy about what they want, and today, they want to do something more with their time, something better. They want to enjoy an experience instead of wasting time on a mundane activity.”
In the United States, motorists spend an average of 17 hours per year searching for parking spots, according to a 2017 study conducted by traffic analytics provider Inrix. Those hours cost each driver, the study found, an average of $345 in wasted time, fuel and emissions. Depending on the location, this “parking pain,” as Inrix calls it, costs much more. New Yorkers spend 107 hours a year looking for parking spot at a cost of $2,243 per driver.
Would motorists be willing to pay some portion of that money to save time? That’s Steer’s proposition. When the company commercially deploys, it plans to use a subscription model — much like SiriusXM, Netflix and Spotify — rather than asking prospective customers to pay a larger sum upfront. Pricing is not yet finalized.
Steer has signed contracts with two automakers and a major supplier to license its software starting with 2021 model-year vehicles. Those come on the heels of a partnership with Visteon announced this year. Further, the company plans to sell a self-parking system and service directly to consumers, who can have the necessary hardware and software retrofitted to any vehicle from the 2012 model year forward.
Though Steer has not courted attention since its founding in 2016, others are starting to notice the tech company and consider the possibilities such parking technology allows.
In April, Steer partnered with a real estate development firm building a mixed-use housing project in Columbia, Md., that one day expects to provide homes for 2,300 residents. Project leaders are enhancing drop-off zones in front of apartment buildings, with the idea residents who have Steer can be dropped off and picked up there while their vehicles park themselves in a nearby garage.
Residents won’t start moving in until the second half of 2019, but at the BWI airport, Steer’s technology is already on display. Airport officials have embarked on a pilot project that lets the company test in a parking lot and garage adjacent to Terminal 1, a Southwest Airlines hub.
On a recent morning, the company demonstrated the technology at work with a human safety driver behind the wheel, showing its technology could detect and respond to obstacles like a person pushing a baggage cart across its path.
Next year, the airport will add a crosswalk from the lot and then begin considering where to place other Steer-enabled lots around the airport. Proximity to the terminal is a key factor.
“If you ask to drop them off at an inconvenient place and lug three bags all the way over, it’s not a fun and convenient experience anymore,” said Sonalker, formerly vice president of engineering at TowerSec, an automotive cybersecurity company. “So they want to create a park-and-walk concept that is pedestrian friendly. You cross over and you are in the airport. You can’t get better than that.”
One lynchpin in Steer’s overall business plan is dependence upon parking lot owners and operators to use a development kit to map garages and lots. Owners can customize drop-off zones and traffic flow as desired to manage curb space and traffic. Sonalker says a dozen parking operators have already enabled their lots and she expects 30 more will be added by the end of this year. But building a critical mass ahead of a mass-market rollout will be required so consumers find their subscription worthwhile.
Parking lot operators and others may be eager to cooperate. Because occupants exit at a designated curb, they no longer need the space to open car doors in a traditional parking stall that’s 9 feet wide. At least in theory, parking operators can paint narrower berths, squeeze in as many as 20 percent more cars into their existing lot imprints, and add to their bottom lines.
Public officials may be interested in potential cost savings. Expenses associated with building parking structures and lots can run in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and a technology such as Steer’s may allow them to fit more cars into existing structures and diminish the need to build new ones at taxpayer expense.
In that sense, the savings provided by self-driving tech within the parking environment is a glimpse of the broad potential it holds to improve conditions on existing public roads without adding more infrastructure.
“That’s where we’re at as a country, frankly,” said Pete Rahn, chairman of the Maryland Transportation Authority and secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, the latter of which oversees the Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. “How do we get more out of what we already have? To me, this technology like Steer’s is one way of how we’re going to do that.”