Car tech: Taking drivers' helpers for a spin

Think your spouse is a back-seat driver? Check out some of these automated features.

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Assisted parking

Lexus and Toyota have a corner on assisted parking, where you pull up to a free spot and the car automatically parallel-parks for you. This form of robotics is important because, especially for some drivers, the movements can be tricky or even impossible to perform. Lexus' Williamson says the calculations for self-park are incredibly complex, and include figuring the distance between parked cars, position of the wheels and current speed.

"First, you drive past the open spaces," says Williamson. "Ultrasonic sensors detect the edge of the cars on each side of the space to determine whether the car can fit in a space," says Williamson. "Next, we use visual imagery from the back-up camera to ask the driver to confirm which space to use. You click and drag with your finger to select the space, and the car backs you onto the space."

Sensors on each corner of the vehicle send out a radio signal to bounce off nearby objects and detect obstructions, Williamson explains. Interestingly, the 2010 Lexus LS 600h also uses wheel-speed indicators along with radio sensors to collect, as you slow down, more and more data. For example, the Lexus knows you are at a "pre-park" speed and scans for obstructions in more detail.

On Ford vehicles such as the Flex and Taurus Sho, an Active Park Assist feature uses a combination of robotics and driver assistance. In a test drive, a Ford Flex scanned for open spots and prompted me to slow down, stop and put the car in reverse. Then, the vehicle backed up (rather quickly) and started to parallel park. With the Flex, the driver has to apply brakes as the car enters the spot, then again as the car movies forward. Jerry Krauth, a Luther Auto account manager, says Ford specifically wants to introduce robotics in a way that involves the driver and is not completely autonomous. The company will slowly introduce more AI-controlled features.

Ford's park assist

Ford's Park Assist feature helps you find a free spot and park your car. Unlike other self-park features in Toyota and Lexus cars, Ford requires more driver interaction, especially for braking.

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One interesting note: None of the car makers says it has plans to offer any extensive re-training for automated features, and there is no certification process in the U.S. for features such as self-parking. As autonomous vehicle operation becomes the norm, car companies may need to add classes or promote government-sponsored instruction for these advanced driving features.

Blind-spot warning

Acura blind-spot warning

A blind-spot warning alerts the driver with lights near the side-view mirror.

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Several current models -- including the Buick Lucerne and Ford Fusion -- use sensors to detect vehicles approaching next to you. According to GM's Capp, most blind-spot warnings do not use an audible chime, which can distract the driver, but instead display a light near the side mirror, where the driver is supposed to be looking. This helps avoid crashes caused by distractions, he says. According to Capp, blind-spot sensors scan about six feet away from the vehicle.

Analog Devices' O'Reilly says most cars with blind-spot warnings use a video camera to detect reflections or, as on the Mercedes E350, use ultrasonic sensors in the 20kHz range to detect movement. The sensors tie into a CPU in the vehicle and compare the data to information from accelerometers for speed detection and steering wheel angle, and link up with gyroscopes that detect the rate at which the wheel is turning (slow, fast or idle).

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