Parking Assist Systems

Growing up in metro New York, parallel parking was one of the easier parts of my driver's license road test. I got plenty of practice. Every town had a "downtown" area where the only parking available was on the street. Back then, we just bumped into the curb and tapped the cars in front and behind us to squeeze into a spot. The closest we had to a parking assistant was a friend behind us shouting or using hand signals when it was time to stop.

But for most drivers, especially those who don't get much practice, parallel parking is one of the more difficult driving maneuvers. Today, you can buy a smart car that helps you park, and soon you'll be able to buy a car that can park itself.

Yes, you read that correctly. Some of these vehicles have sensors in the bumpers that transmit signals to the car, and calculate the locations of objects near the vehicle. Other systems sense objects by using radar or lasers, or have cameras mounted on them.

Toyota is currently the only manufacturer offering a built-in parallel parking assistant system in its Lexus LS 460L (and its Japanese and British Prius hybrids). BMW expects its prototypes by 2009, with their plan to have a remote control parking mechanism to park the car horizontally, like you would in a garage.

The current technology for these systems allows the car to take over the steering, while you control the brake. The assistant emits a warning tone when you should stop the car and shift into reverse or forward. Other systems have a monitor mounted in the dash, and a computer voice telling you what to do.

If you can't wait for the more sophisticated systems to become standard, purchase a simpler, stand-alone parking device. These won't take over the steering for you, but they do emit beeps and warnings when you are getting too close to an object. They also sense children and low walls in your blind spot.

Such devices are sure to prevent many fender benders and other damage to your vehicle. Whether you live in a crowded city where parallel parking is a much-needed skill, or you live in less dense areas where you tend to get out of practice, it's easier to park when you have help. And now you can do it without your friend's shouts and hand signals.

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