The German Aerospace Centre in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, this week tested its clever car parking system in a public space for the first time.
The driver pulled up outside the city's train station and walked off, leaving the car to find a parking spot and put itself neatly there. When the driver "returned" from his fictional journey, a simple call via a smartphone to the car was enough to summon it to the front of the station, ready to be driven home.
"There are a number of scenarios for highly automated driving, and parking is one of the most interesting," Professor Karsten Lemmer at the DLR's Institute of Transportation Systems told The Local.
"We wanted to demonstrate the abilities we have developed. And to do it in a public setting was also important. It was fascinating to see how the system was able to park exactly over and over again - to the centimetre."
Hands and feet free
Because the test was being held in a public, open space in front of the train station, a human safety driver had to remain in the car at all times. "But he was taking his feet away from the pedals and raising his hands in the air to show he was not driving," said Lemmer.
The system uses data from cameras set up around the station, to enable the car to spot a potential parking space. Then the DLR's car, which is packed with sensors, special drivetrain technology and high-performance computer hardware, trundles over and takes a look.
It has enough camera- and computing-power to see whether the space is big enough, to check if there is something else there - like a person or a forgotten suitcase. Once it has decided the spot is suitable, it parks itself and awaits instruction to return to pick up the driver.
Lammer said the automatic parking concept alone could be very interesting for travellers - and the train stations, airports and even hotels providing parking spaces.
They could provide separate areas for the automatically driven cars, where people would not be allowed, solving the current problem of having to have a safety driver in the car just in case the automatic system fails.
Tighter parking zones
Once there, the cars could park themselves really tightly - because there would be no need to open the doors.
Automatic parking - Lemmer's team likes to call it valet parking - is another piece of the automatic driving puzzle which is gradually being built around and within modern cars. Today's cars are already well ahead from the cruise control which has long been a feature in American cars.
Cameras, in-car screens showing what is going on around the vehicle, distance metres and parking suggestions are already common features.
As cars are becoming smarter, drivers are becoming more willing to give some of their, until now jealously guarded sovereignty, to the machines.
It is all a question of designing the automatic features around the drivers rather than expecting drivers to adapt to the car, said Lemmer.
Cars will soon be able to take over when a driver becomes unconscious for example - spotting when this happens and safely manoeuvring out of harm's way to the side of the road and even alerting the emergency services, he said.
"This would actually be another task that we will demonstrate in the future with our experimental car," he said.