Vehicle Parking Assist Systems Explained

By: Jasonlancaster
Vehicles of almost every sort have been getting bigger and bigger over the past decade. In fact, even the "entry-level" cars offered by companies like BMW are nearly the same size and weight as mid-size cars were just ten years ago. As vehicles keep getting bigger, parking has gotten progressively more difficult.

The most obvious vehicle size increase has been in the pickup truck segment, where "small" trucks like the Dodge Dakota now look like giants beside their early predecessors. Full-size trucks have also been expanding, becoming heavier, wider and taller. Toyota too has participated in this growth trend. The Toyota Tundra was originally a mid-size pickup marketed to full-size buyers. Toyota realized a larger vehicle could fit more customers, and as a result, the 2007 Tundra was much bigger than earlier models in almost every dimension.

While size does matter, all of that increased mass is nowhere near as easy to park as it used to be. For instance, when you ride in a new Toyota Tundra, you'll probably find it difficult to tell exactly where the truck begins and ends. Vehicle designers, in an effort to make our lives easier, have come up with something called "parking assist" to help overcome this issue.

"Parking assist" is, on most vehicles, a system of sensors mounted on one or both sets of bumpers which beeps as the vehicle approaches an object. The beeps usually begin from about 6 feet away from an obstacle, and increase in frequency as you approach, becoming a continuous tone at about 6 inches from the obstacle. Beeping frequency and onset vary between different systems. The parking assist is a great tool for parallel parking, and can also serve as a warning if a small object such as a fence post or child is near your vehicle. But how does it work?

The system works using a set of "eyes", or special sensors, mounted in the vehicle's bumpers. The sensors regularly transmit highly focused sound waves from the bumpers, which are reflected back towards the sensor whenever they hit a solid object. Since sound travels at a fairly constant speed through air, a computer can calculate the distance between the bumper and object based on the amount of time it takes for the signal to return to the bumper. Submarines using active sonar underwater employ the same basic principle, although water transmits sound better than air, which results in better range for the submarine sensors.

Although the sensors can effectively detect stationary objects such as parked vehicles and garage doors, they're not sensitive enough for smaller mobile objects, such as animals or children. These objects might not generate a warning beep, or at least not consistently. Therefore, drivers still need to use caution and be aware of their vehicle's surroundings when parking. Parking assist, also called parking sonar, is definitely a useful tool, but is not a replacement for a careful driver.

The next generation of parking assist systems has begun to appear in high-end luxury cars, and it's really quite amazing. Rather than using just sound sensors - which are somewhat inaccurate - the system uses a video camera and a complex computer program in conjunction with the sound sensors. Instead of just warning the driver when they get close, this next generation of parking assist actually steers and parks your car for you. This is really helpful with parallel parking - just so long as you're willing to let your car work the steering, gas, and brake. What will they think of next?
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