Look ma, no hands
Cars with the self-parking feature could cause some drivers to forget their parking skills
You have heard of hands-free dialling, but what about hands-free parking? That is right - cars that do away with the hassle of figuring out the correct angle and number of turns to get into a parking space.
Currently, there are around two dozen car models here that come with this nifty feature, which is surely a boon to those who are averse to parking.
Most are designed to tackle parallel parking, which is especially challenging to some.
The technology is based on a battery of ultrasonic sensors (as many as 12) located on the bumpers. These sensors detect an opening between parked vehicles and an onboard computer calculates if the space is sufficient for the car.
Once that is determined, the car prompts the driver to put the transmission into Reverse and the computer does the rest.
The car's electric steering (only cars with electric steering can be fitted with self-parking) executes a series of ghostly twirls and the vehicle angles itself into the lot.
All the driver has to do is modulate the brakes (to keep the manoeuvre at a saner speed) and keep an eye out for pedestrians. The car will prompt him or her to engage Drive when it is time to straighten up.
The first car to have this feature was a Toyota Estima MPV brought in by parallel importer Richburg in 2006. But it had a rather unwieldy system - the driver had to align a set of geometric lines on a camera monitor with lines on the parking lot before it could work properly. This often took as long as parking the car.
Two years later, Volkswagen introduced the feature here in a Tiguan compact sport-utility vehicle (a demonstrator car). It was a more straightforward system, but it tackled only parallel lots.
A couple of years later, the manufacturer introduced a second generation that could do perpendicular parking too.
But self-parking Vee-Dubs were not offered en masse until this year. Volkswagen now has eight models with self- parking - the widest range - and all but one can execute parallel and perpendicular parking.
Within months, it sold 255 cars with self-parking.
There is clearly demand for such a gadget, going by the number of other carmakers which are also offering the feature.
Today, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus and Range Rover offer models with hands-free parking here.
But Volkswagen's system is still ahead of the pack, being able to put the car into a parking space that is merely 80cm longer than the vehicle.
And should the driver return to the car and find that other vehicles have parked very close to it, the system will even help to get him or her out of the tight spot. The gaps in front and at the back need only be 25cm wide.
All the other models with self-parking need a bit more space and most cannot manoeuvre a car out of a lot and will only accept parallel lots.
But is the feature a novelty that will wane over time, like other functions such as voice alerts, automatic seat belts and earlier versions of head-up display?
Also, there are already several parking aids at hand today, from reverse beepers to cameras. Do people really need self- parking cars?
The motor industry is divided on this. German companies reckon the technology is here to stay, which is why they are adopting it wholeheartedly.
But the Japanese are not so sure. Mr Klaus Redomske, marketing director of Toyota and Lexus agent Borneo Motors, says: 'Customers don't find the feature very relevant, but more of a 'nice to have'. Most drivers park by themselves and do it faster that way too.'
The entire range of the Lexus LS flagship sedan is equipped with self-parking, which can do parallel and perpendicular parking.
Mr Jacky Wong, director of parallel importer Richburg, says he no longer brings in cars with the feature. But if a customer asks for it, he will specially indent one. He says he has sold about 50 cars with the feature since 2006, mostly to 'businessmen and pilots'.
Volkswagen Singapore spokesman Colin Yong says that customer response to the feature has been 'extremely good', and that there has been 'zero negative feedback'.
'Interestingly, from our live demonstrations at the showroom, women tend to be more impressed with the parallel parking feature, while men are more impressed with the perpendicular parking,' he adds.
On the quiet, many of the brands admit the feature is targeted at women, though none wanted to say this on record for fear of sounding politically incorrect.
Private tutor Elizabeth Tang, 51, after being given a demonstration in a BMW 535i fitted with self-parking, says: 'It's cool and impressive, but if it costs too much, I wouldn't pay for it because I have no trouble parallel-parking.
'But if a car comes with the feature, I'd use it because it's really quite effortless.'
Indeed, observers say the feature can be handy to any driver, especially when the parking space is tight.
Life! sampled two cars with this feature: an Audi A7 Sportback 3.0 and a BMW 535i.
Both systems work well, but the Audi is more versatile. It accepts both parallel and perpendicular spaces and will even get out of the lots by itself.
For parallel parking, it is able to get into a space that is merely 110cm longer than the car, as opposed to 120cm required by the BMW. But this is hardly noticeable in real life.
The Audi is also able to detect smaller vehicles, such as motorcycles. While it is pretty accurate doing parallel parking, it is not as straight in a perpendicular manoeuvre - much depends on how straight the two vehicles by its sides are.
Unlike the Audi, the BMW does not require the driver to indicate which side he intends to park.
Self-parking is no doubt a nifty feature and it can be rather addictive. The problem is, will drivers become overly dependent on it one day and lose their parking skills?
Already, there are signs of folks finding it hard to live without reverse beepers: They have, it seems, forgotten how to park using the side and rear-view mirrors.