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updated 1/9/2013 7:23:12 PM ET 2013-01-10T00:23:12

LAS VEGAS—Outside the Mandarin Hotel, Annie Lien pushed a button on an iPhone app. A few seconds later, an Audi A7 drove out of the parking garage to pick her up. With another button press, the car drove back into the garage and found its own parking place.

This robotic valet service is part Audi's 10-year program to develop cars that can take the wheel whenever the driver wants a break.

"The long-term goal is that we want the customer to choose when to drive and when not to drive," said Lien, who is a senior usability engineer for Volkswagen of North America. (Audi is a division of Volkswagen.)

That choice aspect is an important distinction. Toyota was showing off a Lexus LS test vehicle the same week at the Consumer Electronics Show ( CES ) In Las Vegas. But Toyota made clear that sensors and computers are only to provide better warning to drivers, or to make slight adjustments, such as stiffening the suspension during hard braking. A future Lexus would take the wheel during impending danger "when human error is completely evident," said Jim Pisz, corporate manager of North American business strategy for Toyota.

For Audi, self-driving technology is designed to save the driver not only from danger, but also from boredom. Self-parking is the first of a series of modes that Audi plans to develop in the next decade that will allow the car to take the wheel during tedious aspects of driving, such as inching along in traffic jams or chugging down a dull stretch of highway. [See also: 5 Ways Self-Driving Cars Will Make You Love Commuting ]

"Whenever I don’t want to drive, I allow myself to be driven," said Ricky Hudi, Audi's head of electronics development, at a press conference earlier that day. "And when I just want to have fun — and that will not change in the future — I drive myself." Audi uses the phrase "piloted driving" to emphasize that, while the car can drive itself, the driver is still in control.

The technology for a self-driving car is tantalizingly close at times and frustratingly far away at others. Audi's test car uses only the sensors that are in the safety systems on a regular A7 model. But it needs outside help. The stretch of road and parking lot where it drove had a smattering of laser emitters that track where the car is and relay that information back, over Wi-Fi, to the vehicle's onboard computer. Computers in the garage also keep track of what parking places are open, so the A7 knows where to go. This car can't just park itself anywhere — at least not yet.

But with better sensors and computer programs, a car may not need what Lien calls an "infrastructure" of equipment on the ground to guide it. "We're not necessarily married to the idea of infrastructure," she said. "You could to it with onboard sensors alone."

On other test vehicles, such as Toyota's Lexus LS or Google's self-driving Prius, those sensors are giant and festooned to the roof of the car, looking like instruments on the Mars rover. And the trunk is usually packed with computing gear to instantaneously process all the sensor data and make the decisions needed to keep the car on the road.

At CES, Audi showed off a miniaturized laser scanner about the size of a large fist. It has also condensed the trunkful of computers to a "central driver assistance unit" resembling the motherboard inside an old desktop PC.

While the technology is moving along, it's not the only barrier to cars that can double as chauffeurs. "What we really need is federal regulations," said Lien. "You need to have a framework to deal with legal implications."

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