If you're a skilled driver (and aren't we all?), you've probably dismissed self-parking systems as a high-tech solution to a problem that doesn't exist. But how many times have you been stuck behind another motorist who was trying, and failing, to parallel-park? Here self-parking systems are a potential godsend — they could help the parking-challenged ease into a spot without incident while letting the rest of us get on our way.
Currently, Toyota and Ford offer optional self-parking systems. Inside Line wanted to find out how well the systems work, which one is better and whether either system is actually worth the extra cost. We secured a 2010 Toyota Prius with Intelligent Parking Assist, which is part of the big-ticket Advanced Technology package ($5,180) available on the top-of-the-line Prius V model ($28,830), and a 2011 Lincoln MKT EcoBoost ($49,995) with Ford's Active Park Assist option ($595).
We then recruited Edmunds.com Features Editor Carroll Lachnit — a self-professed poor parallel-parker — to try each system after just a few instructions and give her assessment.
The Same but Different
Both self-parking systems use sensors to scope out a suitable parallel-parking space, and the Toyota version also employs a camera. Once the driver finds a spot and activates the system, each one gives instructions and autonomously spins the steering wheel, while the driver controls the car's speed by riding the brake. But the similarities end there.
The Toyota system offers more features and "back-in" parking in addition to parallel street parking. But the Toyota system is also more complicated and requires several extra steps compared to Ford's more straightforward approach. Toyota's Intelligent Park Assist requires the driver to target a spot via the car's back-up camera, and is controlled via the main in-dash touchscreen, whereas the Lincoln MKT's Active Park Assist is automatic and uses only a small LED readout in the instrument panel.
The Prius driver also has to confirm the targeted spot by hitting an "OK" button on the main touchscreen, and the system allows you to adjust the targeted spot using on-screen arrows. This is nice functionality to have, but the level of complexity can be overwhelming for the parking-challenged. The Ford self-parking system gives only a few simple instructions, and after using the system in the Lincoln MKT, the extra steps of the Toyota system seemed unnecessary and annoying. Further, Toyota spends a dozen pages of the Prius owner's manual explaining how to use Intelligent Park Assist, while Lincoln manages to cover Active Park Assist in just three pages.
"Parallel-parking with the Toyota system was ultimately a piece of cake," Lachnit said, "but if I'd had to go at it cold, with only the help of the owner's manual, it would have been trickier."
In addition, Toyota's self-park system only allows you to creep very slowly into a spot; even at 1 mph, it would occasionally flash a "Speed is too fast" warning. The Ford system has a 6-mph limit (and sounds a warning at 4 mph), and we found this faster pace comfortable for backing the very large MKT into a space.
Mission Not Quite Accomplished
Another knock against the Toyota self-parking system is that it will get you into a spot but doesn't finish the job. The Lincoln's Active Park Assist will inch forward and back several times as necessary to get the vehicle perfectly aligned in a spot, but the Toyota system announces its task is complete even if your vehicle is cocked at an angle in the spot.
"The Prius' parking sequence seemed less refined than the Lincoln's, in that it got you roughly where you were supposed to be," Lachnit said. "But then you were on your own to straighten the wheels and finish."
One downside of the MKT's Active Park Assist system — and one that could intimidate timid parallel-parkers — is that you get conflicting signals while using it. Park Assist tells you to back up via the LED readout, while the vehicle's reverse-sensing system simultaneously warns you with loud beeps that you're about to hit the car parked behind you. It turns out that you can't turn off the reverse-sensor warnings while you're using the self-parking system. Fortunately, the MKT's back-up camera (which isn't involved in the parking process) has a color-coded grid display to indicate how close you actually are to the vehicle behind you.
One thing to keep in mind is that neither self-parking system has the intuitive abilities of a live human driver with years of parking experience under his belt. As such, both systems require you to find a pretty large space before they'll "accept" the mission and commence the parking process.
Similarly, you shouldn't expect these automated parking systems to center your car with the same attention to detail as a skilled driver would have. Lachnit noted that this was particularly true of the bonus "back-in" parking mode included with the Toyota system.
"It seemed to require quite a bit of real estate to tee up the parking spot," she said, "and it put the car pretty close to the vehicle next to the driver's side, inviting door dings." We observed similar results when parking the Prius between two Ferraris in Edmunds.com's parking structure.
Ultimately, both Toyota's Intelligent Park Assist and Ford's Active Park Assist proved effective at the basic task of parallel-parking a vehicle — be it a midsize Toyota Prius or an XL Lincoln MKT. Although a skilled driver would likely do a better job, a self-parking system is a good option to have when anxious or inexperienced parallel-parkers will be driving your vehicle.
The Toyota system offers a lot of functionality (including the ability to fine-tune your target space, plus the back-in feature), but we prefer the Ford system for its simplicity and speed. Finessing the MKT into a space is no big deal with Active Park Assist. The system all but eliminates the stress of parallel-parking — and that's half the battle for any parking newbie.
Other vehicles available with a self-parking system: 2011 Ford Escape, 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid, 2011 Ford Explorer, 2011 Ford Flex, 2011 Lexus LS 460, 2011 Lexus LS 600h, 2011 Lincoln MKS, 2012 Ford Focus
The manufacturers provided Edmunds with these vehicles for the purposes of this test.