For 2009, Ford has introduced its own take on the magical self-parking car. It calls its system Active Park Assist and it's available as an option on the top-spec, turbo V-6 all-wheel-drive 2010 Lincoln MKS sedan and Lincoln MKT crossover (it'll eventually trickle into other Ford and Lincoln vehicles as well). Fellow ConsumerSearch editor Molly McLaughlin and I went to a recent Ford tech presentation in Manhattan, where the local PR folks asked if we'd like a demonstration of the parallel-parking system. Convinced it was a big joke, we naturally said yes. There was no way it could possibly work. Only it did.
Not only that: it worked well. Unnervingly so, even. Its operation is simple. Press a button on the center console to activate the feature, and the car uses its bumper-mounted parking distance sensors to detect gaps in the cars parked on either side (it defaults to the right, or you can manually tell it to scan on the left). Once it finds a space that will fit the car -- the spot needs to be 25% larger than the car for Park Assist to give its blessing -- it alerts you via the multifunction display and tells you to put the car in reverse.
Then, you need to suspend your disbelief and let things happen. The only thing you're allowed to do is work the brake as the car eases itself into the parking space. As this happens, the wheel turns all by itself, and you must resist the temptation to touch it. Do that, and you need to start over. (Molly touched the wheel.) Eventually, the car backs in and instructs you to put it into drive, at which point it automatically pulls forward and straightens itself. Then, you put it in park and walk away bewildered at what just happened.
Of course, while this demo took place on a real city street (West 18th, to be exact), it was still a controlled environment -- Ford had the spot pre-made, bookended by a pair of perfectly-spaced Taurus sedans. We're now curious to see how long it'd take us to find a properly-sized, legal Manhattan parking space "in the wild" using the feature, but that's another experiment for another day...