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When Cars Park Themselves: A Guide to Parking Assist Technologies

Parallel parking is the Achilles’ heel of many drivers, especially in dense urban settings. Spaces can be at a premium on packed downtown streets, and there’s no guarantee that the first spot that presents itself will be large enough for an easy parking job. Parallel parking is especially difficult when motorists are held up by an aspiring parallel parker. Even in non-parallel parking situations, urban environments can make parking difficult. Many nose-in or angled parking slots are very narrow; when coupled with today’s larger vehicles, getting out of your vehicle without slamming your car door into the neighboring car can be a dicey proposition.

Thankfully, automakers have been working on parking assist technologies to take some of the pain out of parking. From sensors and back-up cameras to complete automated parking systems, these optional packages can make parking a breeze. Some advanced systems even allow the driver to exit the vehicle and park the car from outside. How do these systems work, and how useful are they for the average driver?

Parking Assist Basics: What’s Available, and What’s Standard

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Most parking assist technologies are optional features that you will have to pay extra for. Some of these technologies are relatively inexpensive, and many of them will become standard features as time goes on. Backup cameras, for example, will become legally mandated in 2018. Parking assist technologies can also double as important safety features, so many of these technologies will likely become standard features in the future. These technologies are under rapid and constant development, and it can be difficult to keep track of all the options.

Broadly speaking, however, parking assist technologies can be divided into two categories: sensing technologies and control technologies. Sensing systems, such as parking sensors and backup cameras, make it easier for drivers to know what’s around their vehicle while they park. Control systems assist the driver with maneuvering the vehicle into a parking spot.

Parking Sensors: The Beeps that Prevent Scratches

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

One of the biggest challenges with parallel parking is the inability of the driver to see through his or her vehicle to spot hidden obstacles and measure distances precisely. It’s possible for a small object, such as a ball or an unattended toddler, to slip into the path of a large SUV without the driver being able to see them.

Parking sensors eliminate this uncertainty. These sensors come in two varieties: electromagnetic sensors and ultrasonic sensors. Both types of sensors are located in the front and rear bumpers of the vehicle.

  • Ultrasonic sensors send out pulses of ultrasonic waves and listen for the return echoes; by measuring the time it takes for these echoes to arrive, ultrasonic sensors can identify obstacles in the vehicle’s path and measure the distance between the obstacle and the vehicle.
  • Electromagnetic sensors emit an electromagnetic field around the bumper; when an obstacle breaks that field, it sends a voltage spike through the sensor. The strength and timing of this spike then allows the vehicle’s onboard computer to calculate the size and distance of the obstacle.

Both types of sensor packages communicate this information to the driver, usually in the form of audio beeps, to reduce accidents and make parking easier.

Slow, infrequent chirps indicate a more distant obstacle, and rapid-fire chirps tell the driver that obstacles are nearby.

Some cities have experimented with a different type of parking sensor; by pairing an optical sensor with a magnetic field detector, these cities have created intelligent streets that can tell when there’s an open parking spot. Drivers with the necessary app can plug in to the city’s parking network and easily navigate to an open parking spot.

Backup Cameras: See What’s Behind You

Image courtesy of Ray Bouknight on Flickr, licensed under CC by 2.0.

Image courtesy of Ray Bouknight on Flickr, licensed under CC by 2.0.

Backup cameras represent a massive improvement over rearview mirrors, especially for bulkier vehicles with large blind spots. These cameras route a video feed of the rear of the vehicle to a screen in the center console, giving drivers a clear view of what’s going on behind them as they back into a spot. Backup cameras take the guesswork out of parking, offering an improvement even over parking sensors; backup cameras allow drivers to see even small obstructions that might not trigger their parking sensors, and drivers can see exactly where those obstructions are. By 2018, all new vehicles will be equipped with backup cameras.

Surround View Cameras: See Everything

Backup cameras are nice, but some automakers have experimented with cameras for all sides of the vehicle, giving drivers a complete view of their surroundings. These cameras allow drivers to spot all obstructions, center the vehicle perfectly in a parking spot, and sidle up to the curb without scraping their wheels or the car’s body. Most of these systems stitch together the four camera views into one composite image with a representation of the car in the center of the image. Some automakers also include side-view cameras in the nose of the vehicle, allowing drivers to peek around corners without sticking their nose into traffic.

Intelligent Parking Assist: Sit Back and Relax

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Intelligent parking assist systems represent the current peak of parking assistance technologies. Once the system is engaged, it takes control of steering the vehicle into position; the driver controls the speed, however.

By measuring the size of a potential parking spot, these systems can calculate whether the vehicle can fit into that spot.

In most cases, the system tells the driver when to accelerate, brake and shift from reverse to drive. These systems can handle any type of parking situation, including parallel parking.

Future Developments: No Driver Needed?

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Automakers are actively working on developing new parking assist systems to take the hassle out of this necessary driving chore. BMW, for example, recently demonstrated an automatic parking valet system. When the system is engaged, the vehicle begins searching for a spot in the parking lot autonomously, even without the driver in the vehicle. Once it locates a spot, it parks itself and waits for the driver to return. Other technologies in development include cloud-based community parking systems, automated home parking, external trailer parking and more.

Parking is a necessity of driving that may be unpleasant in densely populated areas, but automakers are actively working to make parking safer and easier. Parking sensors and backup cameras have made their way into many new vehicles and will become standard features in the near future. Intelligent parking assist systems are more expensive and harder to find, but they make parking a relative breeze for those drivers who have them. As technology improves, automakers are working on even more advanced systems to make parking simpler.

Who wouldn’t like to have a car that you can leave to find parking on its own?

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