Automatic Parking Systems

Parallel Parking Has Never Been Easier

Car parked badly on side of road

 thienzieyung via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

There are a number of automatic parking systems, and they are designed to perform a handful of similar tasks. Some automatic parking systems offer hands-free parallel parking, and others simply provide some helpful assistance. The latter is typically referred to as "parallel parking assistance" or "parking assist," while the former is a true automatic parallel parking system. The similar term “automated parking” typically refers to structures that use robotic equipment to store vehicles without human intervention.

The History of Automatic Parking

Automatic parallel parking has only been available for about a decade, but the idea is significantly older than that. One of the first parallel parking systems was developed in the early 1930s, and it operated in a very different way than modern solutions. This early technology involved four tractor units that were attached to powered jacks. When the jacks were lowered, the vehicle could be lifted off its wheels. Once it was supported by the tractor units, a power take-off from the transmission would allow the tractor units to slide the vehicle into place.

That idea never really took off, but the idea of making parallel parking easier resurfaced during the 1990s. By that time, robotic automation systems had advanced to the point where it was feasible to have a computer do the heavy lifting in relatively simple tasks like parallel parking. By the late 1990s, the first computer-controlled parallel parking systems had been tested successfully.

Toyota was the first OEM to integrate the technology in its 2003 Prius, but a number of makes and models now offer some type of computer-assisted or controlled parallel parking system.

How Does Automatic Parallel Parking Work?

Automatic parallel parking systems use a variety of sensors to determine the approximate size of the space between two parked vehicles, and then a built-in computer calculates the necessary steering angles and velocities to safely navigate into the parking spot. In fully automated systems, the computer can then control drive-by-wire systems with little or no input from the driver. However, there are a few cases where the driver may have to take control.

Early automatic parallel parking systems had difficulty working in tight quarters. Even though a skilled driver might be able to navigate safely into a spot, activating some early systems, under those circumstances, would result in safety warnings. Early systems also had difficulty recognizing the presence of nonmetallic objects such as pedestrians and animals.

Automatic parking systems have improved since the technology first appeared, and some of them are capable of recognizing the presence of lane stripes and nonmetallic objects. Some automatic parking systems are also capable of backing into traditional parking spaces in addition to parallel parking. Those systems use the same technology, as a combination of sensors allow a computer to calculate the proper steering angles and velocities to park perpendicularly in between two other vehicles.

The Availability of Automatic Parking

The first automatic parking system was offered in the 2003 Toyota Prius, but it didn’t appear in the United States until the introduction of the 2006 Lexus. Since then, Toyota has also added it to Prius models sold in the United States and Europe. Ford and BMW have also introduced their own automatic parking systems, and Ford’s Active Park Assist is also available through its upmarket Lincoln badge.

In addition to fully automatic parking, some automakers have introduced technologies that are designed to help drivers navigate into tight spots. The Mercedes Parktronic system is one example that uses sonar sensors to determine whether the vehicle will fit in nearby spaces. Though it can’t take control of the steering and throttle like automated systems, it can provide the driver with helpful instructions.