One thing that often freaks student drivers is reversing, especially when it involves parallel parking.
Some never get over it, and will do anything to avoid tricky backing.
Now, technology is riding to the rescue of anyone who breaks into a sweat when reverse gear is chosen.
Parking sensors and reversing cameras are becoming mainstream and there’s a new breed of cars available in New Zealand that will even back into a parking space for you.
For some, these advances are all their Christmas wishes come true; for others it’s all pretty sissy.
Real drivers don’t need parking aids – or do they?
When the Australian National Roads and Motorists’ Association studied blind spots behind 270 models, less than one per cent received a top rating for the driver being able to spot a two-year-old child behind the vehicle.
It found that many popular family cars have big blind spots, especially those with high-tail styling and small rear windows.
In some cases, a child could not be seen 15 metres back from the car.
So there’s a strong safety argument for the new-age aids. But beyond that, why does driving have to be harder than need be?
Just as today’s automatics have made good driving easier, why shouldn’t electronic aids be there to provide additional useful information when backing?
Aids that go ‘beep’
The simplest form of reversing and parking aids comprises sensors that start a beeper going when a solid object gets close and progresses to a constant whine as it becomes paint-kissin’ near. These “radar” sensors may be mounted on the rear bumper or both front and rear bumpers.
It’s best to have them at both ends as a full set can be a real bonus when parallel parking or getting as close as possible to a wall in a parking building.
They’ve become a popular aftermarket item, with simple ones available from around the $100 mark, so nobody has to go without the advantages of this useful aid.
“Park-by-radar” technology is now well developed and cost-effective.
A small disadvantage is that it may continue to beep if you’ve parked close to an object while, say, letting a passenger in or out. That’s why most cars have a deactivating switch.
Aids you can watch
A beeping aid may not pick up little Johnny’s bike lying flat on the driveway in a blind spot. Or even little Johnny. This is one reason why reversing cameras were developed.
A small wide-angle lens, usually mounted near the number plate and protected from the weather, relays a picture of what’s behind the vehicle to a display on the dashboard.
As an aid to see into those blind spots, it’s very good, but it’s not a substitute for using rear-view mirrors for reversing.
Many reversing cameras fail as an “electronic mirror” because the screen is too small, the picture of poor quality, or the angle of view disorienting.
Some can’t cope with harsh lighting – part of the image will be washed-out and the rest a black blob.
One of the best of the breed is on the latest high-line Lexus models.
It has a large well-placed screen, shows a high quality picture and provides a clever series of superimposed electronic “lines”, including the angle of the front wheels, to help guide the driver.
But it still suffers from the killer of all such aids – bright sunlight making the panel un-viewable in the same way that it’s almost impossible to frame a picture on a digital camera’s viewing panel in bright daylight.
On the other hand, it works surprisingly well at night.
Aftermarket camera kits are available and some are quite good. They cost in the $200-$500 range.
Let it do the parking
The ultimate aid has to be a system that parallel parks for you by using sensors and considerable computing power. Among the first on New Zealand roads are the Lexus LS600h L, the Volkswagen Touran and Cross Touran.
Once activated, the driver simply controls the accelerator and brake while the car steers itself into the parking space with the help of sensors.
It’s a $1750 option on the Touran and uses ultrasonic parking sensors in the front and rear bumpers that work in conjunction with the electromechanical power steering.
At speeds below 30km/h the system begins scanning possible parking locations on each side of the car.
It begins parking when the driver activates indicator lights on the side of the road he wants to park on, and puts the car in reverse.
About 15 seconds later the Touran is parked. It automatically deactivates if the speed exceeds 7km/h or the driver takes over the steering.