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What is park assist?

Systems to take over parking manoeuvres are getting ever smarter. Here’s how they work and what kind of assistance is on offer.

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Many of us find parking a bit tricky, especially parallel parking, and with today’s cars getting bigger and bulkier a bit of help to slot the car into the right space can be welcome.

According to Thatcham Research, in the UK nearly a quarter of all insurance claims are related to parking or low speed manoeuvres.

How park assist works

It’s 20 years since Toyota introduced the first mass-market parking assistance. All current systems enable you to set the car up to reverse park into a parallel space or back into a marked bay at a right angle, with varying amounts of input from the driver.

They use much of the technology which comes with standard-fit advanced driver assistance systems, namely the bumper ultrasonic sensors (which emit sound waves which bounce off of objects around the car), front and rear view cameras and the radar sensors also used for adaptive cruise control and blind spot assist. Some systems also have ultrasonic sensors on the sides of the vehicle.

To take parallel parking in a street; the driver presses a button while the car is moving along a line of parked cars at low speed (typically less than 25mph) the ultrasonic sensors at the corners of the car scan any gaps either side of the road and identify which would be the right size to back into.

The system know the length of the vehicle so, for example with the current Volkswagen Polo the space must be at least as long as the car plus 80cm with at least 25cm in front and behind the vehicle for driving out of the space. Parking bays must have at least 35cm clearance on both sides.

The allowance is generous, so it won’t try and squeeze you into spaces you might previously have unwisely tried. If you tell the system to go ahead (by putting the indicator on), depending on the car will engage reverse or tell you to do so (manual or automatic gearboxes). 

The system then takes over the steering and may tell you to accelerate, brake or change between reverse and forward (or reverse and drive in an automatic/EV).  Some systems are fully automated to complete the manoeuvre and it can be quite a weird feeling talking your feet and hands off the controls. Some will help you exit a tricky parking space.

How clever does park assist get?

Carmakers all use different names but all have the word park in them. For example Nissan has ‘Intelligent Park Assist’, Tesla chooses AutoPark and Renault goes for ‘EasyPark Assist’. Like all car technologies, park assist is evolving all the time and some cars will remember how to get into particular parking spots or park themselves without you in them. 

Volkswagen’s Park Assist Plus with memory function is optional on all of the electric ID models. It can ‘learn’ up to five parking manoeuvres. As soon as the ID drives slower than 25mph the memory function recalls all driving manoeuvres over the last 50 metres.

The driver completes the manoeuvre, saves it (up to five can be stored) and when the vehicle returns to the same spot it suggests a parking manoeuvre and the driver can let it take over going into reverse, steering, braking and accelerating. 

Kia’s advanced Remote Smart Park Assist (RSPA) can move the car out of a tight space or park it without you in it. RSPA is fitted as standard on the (very large) Kia Sorrento SUV and the top electric EV6 GT-Line S. All occupants, including the driver, can get out of the vehicle and instruct it to complete the final stage of the parking manoeuvre itself.

Alternatively, it can be used to move the car out of a space if it’s impossible to open the doors conveniently or safely. If the vehicle detects a potential collision or hazard, such as a moving vehicle, cyclist or pedestrian, it automatically applies the brakes until its path is clear.

You’d expect the high-tech Tesla to have something more than parking assistance and incredibly, Smart Summon allows you to stand away from your parked Tesla and have it move out of a parking space up to 12 metres away. On the internet you’ll find several videos of very excited people being followed around empty American car parks by their Teslas like a puppy (sometimes a naughty puppy when they miss the mark).

However, in the UK the system is limited so – according to owner forums – the owner needs to be standing less than six metres from the car. Some owners use it to move the car when washing it.

The future could see cars in car parks driving themselves away to park. Late last year Bosch and Mercedes-Benz had government approval for entirely driverless parking, where the driver leaves the car at the entrance to a parking garage and the car finds its pre-booked space and parks itself – working with sensors in the garage – while they walk away.

This makes it the world’s first highly automated driverless parking function and available soon for certain S-Class and EQS variants equipped with Intelligent Park Pilot, initially at Stuttgart Airport. When the driver returns, the car can be summoned to a pick-up area. This year, as prelude to a worldwide launch, Bosch and parking firm APCOA are installing the technology in 15 further parking garages in Germany.

How much does park assist cost to add?

If you’re buying a new car, you usually have to specify park assist systems as an option with your order (it can’t be added later) although BMW allows owners to ‘rent’ extra features after the car has been ordered by over-the-air software updates called BMW Connected Drive Upgrades. Parking Assistant professional can be rented for a year for £250 or £450 for an unlimited time. 

Looking at the campervan-style (and £60,000-plus) electric Volkswagen ID Buzz, as of April 2023 the standard Park Assist Plus function (without memory) is an option included in part of the Assistance Plus which includes front and rear cameras and adaptive cruise control for £1,425 added to the ID Buzz Life. On the Tesla Model 3 Autopark and Summon comes within the £3,400 Enhanced Autopilot package

On relatively cheaper cars park assist systems are less than £1,000 ordered as an option from new. The Ford Puma Titanium (from £24,950) provides Active Park Assist with the £500 Parking Pack, which includes Active Park Assist, front parking sensors a rear view camera. On Volkswagen’s smallest car to have park assist, the Polo, Park Assist (the basic system) is £525 as part of the Drivers assistance pack.

Which used cars have park assist?

Park assist systems can be found on used cars, but it takes a bit of digging. When using search engines on the approved used car websites tick ‘parking aids’ if it’s available, or park assist as a keyword in search engines such as Autotrader’s.

Volkswagen’s Park Assist has been available on the Golf since the sixth generation introduced in 2008, but it’s not a common option. The latest model of BMW 3-Series (from 2019) had parking assist fitted as standard from launch, but for a time during the semiconductor shortage this was dropped, as many other car makers did, to speed up delivery. It’s not a searchable option in the BMW used approved sub-menu, you have to look car-by-car.

Slightly smaller, if you’re looking for a used Mercedes-Benz A-Class (from 2018) the Executive equipment package added Active Parking Assist with Parktronic, as did the Premium and Premium Plus packs. It’s a bit fiddly to confirm though as you have to select ‘package’ in a drop down and then on the car listing ‘safety features’.

Are there any downsides to park assist?

As with all driver assistance systems, you have to be ready to step in. No park assist system will be able to allow for every eventuality so you need to be watching the rear view camera/wing mirrors to be ready to brake if a person, animal or object suddenly comes into the path the car is following.

By design, these systems work quite slowly to allow time to deal with any problems which arise. Some can seem agonisingly slow compared with how fast you could do it yourself, even with several attempts. This is not what you want if you are trying to parallel park in a city street without causing a queue of grumpy drivers.

They do have limitations. Some won’t work on a slope and parallel parking needs a vehicle in front to get its bearings from. A distinct kerb or edge must be visible – some systems may not correctly identify the parking space if the kerb is not distinct, such as the edge of a lawn or a dirt path. 

Depending on the angle at which you’ve arrived to back into a perpendicular (right-angle) parking bay the car may need several moves to align itself and the front of the car might swing out in the direction of oncoming traffic so the driver should be prepared to apply the brake.

Dirty cameras and sensors, as well as faded lane markings, can affect performance. If a sensor is damaged or covered in mud the system should flash up a warning message. They can also need re-calibrating during the life of the car, which is done at the dealership.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.