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A Quick Intro to Vehicle Parking Assist Systems

Jul 13, 2008
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.

Nowhere is this gigantism more visible than in the pickup truck segment, where even previously 'small' trucks like the Dodge Dakota have inflated until they now dwarf their predecessors. In turn, full-size trucks have fought their own battle of the bulge, getting heavier, wider and taller. Toyota has not been immune to these market forces. The first generation Toyota Tundra was a mid-size pickup marketed to the full-size crowd, and when Toyota realized that they could cram more buyers into a larger vehicle, the 2007 Tundra re-design greatly increased the capacity of the truck in almost every dimension.

The downside of bigger vehicles is that parking is now a lot harder than it was before. When driving a new Toyota Tundra, you may notice it's difficult to tell where the truck begins and ends. As a solution to these new parking woes, vehicle designers have developed a new tool for drivers called "parking assist."

On most vehicles, "parking assist" is a system of sensors in the front and/or rear bumper that create an audible "beep" when your vehicle gets close to an obstacle. Depending on the system, the beeps will begin when you're about 6 feet away, and then increase in frequency until you get about 6 inches away, when the beeps will become a continuous tone. This is a great feature - it can really help with parallel parking, as well as warning you if something small (i.e. a fence post, a mailbox, or even a small 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?
About the Author
The author Jason Lancaster operates TundraHeadquarters.com, a web site with info, news, and reviews of Toyota Tundra parts and Tundra accessories.
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