A short history of park assist technology

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It’s one of those manoeuvres that separates the men from the boys – or women from the girls if you prefer – the reverse park (or ‘reverse parallel park’ to be pedantic). In theory, if you have passed your driving test, you should be able to perform the manoeuvre; however, not all driving tests around Australia have a compulsory reverse park as part of the test – so you may be able to get away with not mastering it.

Given the difficulty some people have with parking in a tight space, it won’t surprise you to know that car manufacturers have been looking at ways to help people reverse park for quite a while.

Of course, now there are many vehicles for sale in Australia that feature some form of assisted parking, but it was back in 1934 that the very first car was fitted with a system to assist drivers in parking. For some strange reason, it didn’t catch on, although perhaps it had something to do with how it worked – the car was manually jacked up onto another set of wheels at ninety degrees to the main wheels and literally moved sideways into the parking spot.

Today’s systems, which are available on a surprisingly wide range of different brands and vehicle types, are one of two broad types – those where the car steers itself into the space, but the driver must select the gear and control the accelerator and those which are largely autonomous, that is the car controls the entire manoeuvre from start to finish. There are even some cars where you can get out of the car and instruct it to park itself using the key… or your smartphone.

The first genuine attempt to implement self-parking technology in a modern vehicle was in 1992 when VW demonstrated the Futura concept car, which had four-wheel steering – using the main wheels this time – and could again move sideways into a parking spot. This feature was never incorporated into any commercial VW vehicles.

The first global manufacturer to actually sell a vehicle with park assistance was Toyota, who released their Prius hybrid model in 2003 with an automated parallel parking system called ‘Intelligent Parking Assist’. It didn’t take long for other brands to follow suit, with Lexus adding parking assistance to their LS model in 2006 and Ford and BMW coming to the party in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

As you might expect, Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar are at the forefront of park assist technology. The Mercedes system, on board the C-Class saloon, will even scan parking bays for an empty spot as you drive slowly along. When you have decided where you want to park, the car does the rest for you. If you buy a C-Class at the SE model level or above, it comes as standard.

Both the BMW 5 Series and the Jaguar XF work in a similar fashion to the Mercedes, in as much as they will ‘hunt out’ a space for you. The Jag, however has another interesting feature – it will also steer itself out of a tight space when it’s time to leave!

You can’t discuss park assist technology without mentioning the Tesla S, which has a pretty advanced parking system – all fully autonomous. It also has a feature James Bond (or maybe Johnny English) would be proud of, called ‘Summon’, where the car can drive itself out of a tight space – presumably while you watch on. The next step – promised by Tesla – is for the car to drive itself up to the front door when ‘summoned’. Chauffeur service without the chauffeur!

But don’t think you have to get a high-end car to get park assistance – the latest Ford Fiesta comes with a parking assistance system. Overkill, anybody?

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