System is a bit finnicky, but overall is relatively simple and handy once you adjust to its quirks

Ford Motor Company's (F) parallel park assist isn't terribly new.  Along with Toyota Motor Company (TYO:7203), Ford first pushed assisted parallel parking into the mass market with its Active Park Assist option in 2010.  Unlike Toyota, which opted for a more complex multi-functional parking assistant, Ford's was more concerted in its effort and focused explictly on parallel parking.

I. Availability, Basics

Many people are still unaware that this technology exists, and to be honest we never tried it ourselves (though it probably was in one of our past test vehicles), so we decided to test it in its current form.  As far as we determined the following models implemented APA from the listed year onward:
  • 2010 Lincoln MKT
  • 2010 Lincoln MKS
  • 2010 Mercury Mariner
  • 2010 Ford Escape & Escape Hybrid
  • 2010 Ford Flex
  • 2011 Ford Explorer
  • 2012 Ford Focus
While the system has been quietly and steadily improving with each model year since its 2010 model year launch, there's still some limitations.

First, let me explain what I found the system could not do:
  1. Take over parking in angled spots. (This isn't parallel, makes sense!)
  2. Park in unmarked spots where the pavement is curved and there's no vehicles to use as references  (this makes less sense, as this is a potential parallel parking situation).
What it can do is parallel park in more common situations you would typically parallel park in, e.g. city spots.  

While the system has been field tested extensively and is undoubtably ready for action, I admit that I was a bit scared taking the shiny new 2012 Ford Explorer out to test this particular feature.  After all, you're pulling -- albeit momentarily -- an i-Robot and letting your car's AI take over control of the vehicle's steering for some time, something that sent visions of hanging bumpers rushing through my head.

2012 Ford Explorer

The last thing I wanted was to end up a parking fail feature on YouTube, like famed tech video/audio journalist Leo Laporte [video]. (To be fair he didn't pay attention to the directions Ford gave in its instructional materials or the in-car cues to stop.)

II. Parking the Beast

Fortunately, fate was kind to me, or more aptly I was cautious and attentive.

Here's how the parking system works.  
  1. You click a button that located to the bottom left of the steering wheel in the Ford Explorer.  This tells the system to use its ultrasonic sensors to search for a spot.

  2. Parallel Parking controlsParallel Park controls, zoomed out
  3. A spot is found and shows up in the touchscreen.

    MyFord Touch screen
  4. You put the car in reverse as instructed.  This is the system's direction to activate the electronic power-assisted steering (EPAS), which essentially takes over the wheel and backs you into the spot.  
  5. GENTLY apply the gas, rolling into the spot, ready to brake.  Remember, you have complete control over the gas/brake still.
  6. When the system prompts you, switch to drive.  Again gingerly creep forward.
  7. Wait for the signal -- you're done!

Park 1:
  EPAS 3  EPAS 4

Park 2:

EPAS Second 1  EPAS Second Park 2
  EPAS Second Park 3   EPAS Second Park 4
    EPAS Second Park 5

III. The Good, the Bad

I tested the system several times and here are my pros and cons, based on my experience.

Overall the negatives are less a knock on the system, but more suggestions on how it can be improved in the future.

  • The system parks remarkably close to the curb -- a "perfect" park nearly every time.

    Hugging the curb
    Now that's hugging the curb!
  • The system does a relatively good job positioning itself between two vehicles.
  • The entire system is relatively intuitive after a couple uses, though it may take a while to get used to putting the gas on as you entrust the steering to your vehicle.
  • The system eliminates one of the most onerous and dangerous maneuvers in driving.  Well it almost does; it still requires you to control the gas and brake.
  • Vehicle was relatively straight when it hit the curb and only needed a slight forward roll to straighten fully.  This is in contrast to some videos I've seen (perhaps of an older version), which required more rolling back and forth to get it perfectly straight.
  • The system is not fully autonomous.  In theory it could be with the ultrasound sensors, but more than likely Ford didn't want to carry the warranty risk of fully taking over the vehicle.
  • The system has a very narrow window where it will cue you to back up, and if you roll past it, the system simply will drop the cue.
  • There should be an audio cue when a spot was found.  I didn't here one, just saw a visual indicator on screen.
  • The system still plays it a bit safe with very tight spots.  It's gotten better from early videos/reports I've seen, but if you're really good at parallel parking you might be able to beat it, squeezing into spots it refuses to go in.
  • The system should be able to pseudo-parallel park on the street in a neighborhood, even with the curved curb (e.g. park itself parallel to your front lawn on the curb in front of yourself).  It apparently could not in its current form.  I've seen videos of the vehicle parking itself on relatively poorly marked spots, but always between two cars, and never with a curb.  It seems that either the curved curb, or the lack of reference points for the sonar are preventing the system from doing this free park maneuever
  • While learning the system, you may find yourself creeping along and impeding traffic.  It's kind of a do or die maneuver, so you might want to practice on a traffic-free city street in the evening and work yourself up to a faster pace when performing steps 1-3.
  • It would be nice if the system contained some basic pattern recognition (say with a VGA camera) that warned drivers if they were parking in a spot next to a fire hydrant or with a no parking side (both illegal).  The system as is will happily park in such spots, as I saw, as long as it's okay with the space in the front and back.

Ford is the kind of company that is constantly pushing the technology envelope with technologies like lane keeping, EPAS, and Ford SYNC/MyFord Touch.  Sometimes that backfires as they set a higher standard for themselves than some of their lower tech foes.

IV. The Verdict

EPAS Final Park

The key condition is that the drivers who purchase this option must take the time to learn it and must be aware of its limitations and quirks.  If they can do that, they'll find it increasingly is a welcome aid whenever you're stuck trying to find a parking spot on a busy evening out on the town.

A good video demo is available here:

"I'd be pissed too, but you didn't have to go all Minority Report on his ass!" -- Jon Stewart on police raiding Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home

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